By the Los Angeles Bureau Chief
Quentin Tarantino is a failed actor.
This core, essential, immutable fact makes Quentin Tarantino a brilliant interview.
Because he is simultaneously showy (the “actor” part) and self-aware (the “failed” part). Both: always On and too On for his own good. Unlike a lot of actors who come on Charlie Rose (with a few exceptions), Tarantino actually has something to say. He can expand beyond, “it was hard but it was fun.” He’s oddly vulnerable in a way lots of actors aren’t when they’re off-screen (one presumes because they use up all their vulnerability at their day jobs). And, of course, he’s the guy who made Pulp Fiction.
Throughout the years, Tarantino has acted out a variety of characters on Charlie Rose. He’s always playing the part of Quentin Tarantino, of course. But, each time, he’s playing Tarantino playing a version of Tarantino. He goes from QT As Geek –> QT as Critic –> QT As Actor –> QT as Historian –> QT as Writer –> QT as Party Boy –> QT as Master.
Join me, wont you, as we explore this evolution.
QT as Geek: October 14th, 1994
This is the version of QT that made QT famous. The irrepressible “movie geek” with the De Palma scrapbook.
Wearing a loud blue sports coat and a bright green tie with some sort of space creature on it, Tarantino is the kid who’s spent his whole life in the bedroom, dreaming of this (and, let’s be honest, probably jerking off a lot). Charlie mis-pronounces “Travolter;” Tarantino stares at him and rubs his fingers together. You will KNOW me by the end of this, Charlie Rose.
So good, in fact, that Charlie re-aired it twice. Even Tarantino later said ”I’ve always considered that the best filmed interview I’ve ever done. I mean, far and away, actually.” Tarantino spins sordid tales of growing up Movie Geek (“my mom took me to see Carnal Knowledge and The Wild Bunch when I was a kid”), riffs on his favorite directors (Hawkes, Fuller, Scrosese, Godard, Melville, most of all De Palma), and weaves a self-congratulatory success myth (“eight years of NOTHING working out”) to prove he’s earned the moment. He’s energetic. He’s unique. He’s smart. He’s young.
And of course Charlie looks delighted to be (a) scoring the hottest thing in Hollywood and (b) just talking to this…creature. This creature that is so happy to show off and dish and riff and rant and critique and prescribe and mythologize.
At the end of the performance, Charlie shakes Tarantino’s hand, a rare sign of physical respect.
QT as Critic: December 23rd, 1997
The first QT-CR interview might have gone too well. Because Charlie invited Tarantino back to his table three times in seven days around Christmas of 1997 to promote Jackie Brown. This one was by far the most ill-conceived.
The “real” critics clearly think QT doesn’t know his place. They sneer down at him, threatened to the core by this living embodiment of everything they both destroy for a living and (presumably) yearn to be. But of course, they have to make nice because it’s just sort of rude to slam a movie that’s not as good as Pulp Fiction in front of the guy who made it. Denby (thumbs up) and Corliss (thumbs down) both weigh in on Jackie Brown, while Maslin, who was famously buttered up by QT at Cannes before her Pulp Fiction review, nervously abstains altogether.
And by this section of my notes: - Oh no. Charlie just tried to pronounce the name Djimon Hounsou. Oh God (20:58) “am I saying that right?” – No, Charlie, you’re not.
QT as Actor: December 26, 1997
Three, not-unrelated, elements are striking about this interview.
1.) The mock turtleneck.
2.) The extensive use of Jive.
This is QT at the height of his Ego. This is QT’s idea of Chic. It’s not pretty. But it’s certainly entertaining.
Having always said he wanted to be an actor (from the 94 interview: ”all through my childhood I said ‘I wanna be an actor, I wanna be an actor’”), QT finally had the cultural juice to make it happen. But along with being an actor came all the trappings of being an actor, at least in QT’s mind. Namely, “cool” clothes, a pompous distance, and a hot, famous girlfriend. Yup, QT spends most of the interview alluding to how amazing his sex life is with Mira Sorvino (“I’m, just, a man now”). That’s of course when he isn’t talking about ordering Pam Grier (in Jive) to drop every project she might be working on (“screw dat mess”) or convincing Charlie that he, QT, is an apostle (“at the end of the day, there’s just some people that God touched and just said, ‘you’re supposed to make movies.”). Or, of course, talking about what an amazing actor he’s going to prove to the world that he is.
The ridiculous celebrity wankfest reaches its height when Charlie asks about Spike Lee and the n word controversy. QT first “DEMANDS” the right to use whatever words he wants to as a writer. Then drops the n word a few times. Then says: “I’m the maddest at the fact that he didn’t call me personally.” Of course you are, dude.
This iteration of QT, that of him as Actor, is the only one that he really FAILED at in real life. It still makes for a great interview, but there’s a painful edge to this one. He really has overstepped his bounds. His ego really is out of control. It really was too much too soon. QT really has no business going on Charlie Rose to play the part of an actor going on Charlie Rose.
QT as Historian: December 29, 1997
1.) This is how QT would act if he were just a normal nerd, and not a psychopath. In that: he doesn’t talk very much, and when he does, it’s the smartest thing that anyone will say for the next ten minutes. He’s intelligent and persuasive about 70s black culture and Pam Grier’s place in it. He’s thoughtful, he’s done his homework, he knows more about it than you. QT’s always been something of a historian (in the 1994 interview, he said he did well in history at school because it was like movies), and he makes good on it here.
QT as Writer: April 22, 2004
Seven years is a long time.
Between 1997 and 2004, two notable events occurred in the life of Quentin Tarantino. One, he failed at his acting career so spectacularly that I feel bad even linking to this. Two, he failed at writing his masterpiece, a Dirty Dozen-style war movie called Inglourious Basterds. The first of these events clearly humbled him. The second seemed to focus him.
This is the QT that I would actually want to hang out with. Dressed in a simple, almost devotional, green polo, QT is angry, bitter, funny, smart, sharp, wise, vulnerable. He’s actually cool, and not some silly movie version of cool. He seems to have realized what he’s good at, Writing. So he’s accepted and embraced it.
Early on in the interview, Charlie tells a wonderful story about sitting across from QT on an airplane and watching him scribble away all night at something in long hand. It turned out to be Inglourious Basterds. And when Charlie asks QT what he’s been doing all this time, QT replies simply, “I was writing.”
Whereas in 1997 he was totally devoted to the language of the actor (getting a movie “up it on its feet”), now he speaks in the language of the novelist. He said he personally had to address “the writer in me; deal with me.” He says when he’s writing scenes he should “be like a court reporter,” just listening to his characters. He says he “just couldn’t get away from my desk.” And he says, flat-out, that Inglourious Basterds became his “never-ending novel” and that he wanted to treat it “like a novelist does.”
Now, he’s still COMPLETELY OUT OF HIS MIND ARROGANT (“half the reason I do believe in God is because I guess believe in God given talent – it’s easy for me, alright? – the stuff that’s easy for you, it’s obviously not ME doing it”), but, in this interview it somehow comes off as painful and charming and necessary, and not like some circus act.
Because he’s there to promote Kill Bill 2, QT spends a lot of time talking about Uma Thurman. Uma of the ”silver screen nitrate film glimmer” and the “legs that are all kneecaps” and the famous dad (“Bob is cool, alright?”).
But, really, this interview is all about QT presenting himself as the tortured, suffering, humbled Writer.
QT as Party Boy: April 5, 2007
But Quentin Tarantino can only stay humbled for so long.
This entire interview screams: slumming. It’s second-rate Tarantino-Rose (tellingly, only 24 minutes). Just as the movie QT is there to promote, Death Proof, is second-rate Tarantino.
QT has come dressed up as an Austin Party Boy, and along with his Austin Party Boy buddy Robert Rodriguez, seems to have spent most of the last few years having a good time. That’s OK. But it’s not that interesting.
What is interesting? Charlie pronouncing the name Rodriguez as “Er-ee-kiss.” It’s stunning. CR’s had his share of linguistic fuck-ups before, God knows, but this one’s pretty intense.
Two other things of note. One, that QT claims to have “lost” the acting bug, “kinda glad to lose it actually.” And two, that QT pitches what, to me, sounds like the greatest movie ever: A biopic (which QT says he usually can’t stand) about “my favorite American of all time,” “the only white man who has earned his place on black history month calendars,” the man who “single handedly ended slavery:” John Brown. Of course, QT says he wants to PLAY John Brown in the movie, thus proving that he hasn’t entirely lost the acting bug.
But, baby steps.
QT as Master: August 21, 2009
This was the first QT-CR interview to be embedded on the charlierose.com FlowPlayer platform. All the rest were Google Video. I consider FlowPlayer to be the essential signifier of Modern Era Charlie. And, fittingly, this is QT as we know him today. An original. A legend. A fucking freak. The kind of fucking freak who would make a joke of The Holocaust. And make it really well.
(NOTE: I highly recommend watching the first 20 seconds of ALL of these interviews with the sound off – just as the camera pushes slightly into Quentin basking in Charlie’s sycophantic intro – this one is particularly special)
Dressed in black from head-to-toe, like Luke in Jedi, QT now has total and complete command. Of history, of story, of filmmaking, of interviewing. He has nothing to prove. Nothing to supress-wild-insecurity-with-wild-theatricality about. He’s happy just being a genius filmmaker 20 years into a spectacular career.
And to me, that makes him a bit of a freak. He’s NOT normal. Normal people can’t make movies like Quentin Tarantino. Normal people can’t say things like, “an Audie Murphy type of fellow, but for Nazis.” Normal people can’t pull off “Kosher Porn.”
This the most straight-ahead of the QT-CR interviews. The most Mature. It’s Just About The Work. Part of that is because he’d been at Charlie’s table fairly recently. But a bigger part of it is because he’s just kinda grown up. He’s actually a “man” in the way that he said he claimed to be 12 years ago. And that man happens to be a freak.
Freak, in this case, equals genius. And Quentin Tarantino is, without doubt, a genius filmmaker.
Crucially, he’s no longer anything BUT that. He’s not a newly minted pop culture icon. He’s just really good at making movies. That’s it. That’s all he needs. It’s NATURAL. It’s INHERENT. It’s INTERNAL. He CAN’T HELP IT. He’s just a fucking freak. No one GAVE this freakdom to him (except for God, if you ask QT).
He’s just a guy.
A guy who happens to have one special thing.