Eminem rarely does interviews, and a conversation about last night’s surprise performance of “Lose Yourself” at the Academy Awards — some 17 years after the song won him an Oscar — would seem rarer still. The performance in many ways was a belated do-over: He’d decided not to attend the ceremony in 2003, leaving his collaborator Luis Resto to accept the award — from Barbra Streisand, no less — in his place.
Last night’s appearance — which immediately followed a montage celebrating the sound editing/mixing award, which wound down with footage from “8 Mile” — got a rapturous reaction from many screen stars in the crowd. Some of the relatively younger ones were seen singing along, and everyone from Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio to Billie Eilish and Anthony Ramos standing and applauding at the end.
Eminem (real name: Marshall Mathers) has made a habit out of surprises in recent years. His last two albums, last month’s “Music to Be Murdered By” and 2018’s “Kamikaze,” were both surprise releases, and last night’s appearance was a tightly kept secret: Sources say the Dolby Theater was put on lockdown during rehearsals, and that if news leaked to the media, he had the option to cancel.
But it all came off without a hitch, and Eminem got on the phone with Variety this afternoon to talk about how it came together, why he decided not to attend the ceremony in 2003 — and what he was actually doing that night 17 years ago.
Last night’s performance certainly was a surprise — how did it all come together, and why this year?
I kinda figured maybe since I didn’t get a chance to do it at the time, maybe it would be cool. Back then, I never even thought that I had a chance to win, and we had just performed “Lose Yourself” on the Grammys with the Roots a couple of weeks before the Oscars, so we didn’t think it was a good idea. And also, back at that time, the younger me didn’t really feel like a show like that would understand me.
But then when I found out I won, “That’s crazy!” That to me shows how authentic and real that award is — when you don’t show up and you still win. That makes it very real to me.
Were you disappointed that you missed it?
I don’t know that I was disappointed, I was blown back by the fact that I won. I don’t even think I understood back then that you could get an Oscar for a song, and I remember being kinda confused about why I was even up for one, because as a kid with the Oscars, it was like a vacuum.
It would have been amazing to see you accept an Oscar from Barbra Streisand.
Yeah, that would have been crazy.
So what did you end up doing that night?
I think I was just at home with my daughter — and I didn’t watch it, either. At that point in time Hailie had to be at school early in the morning, so [I was sleeping].
Luis Resto, my keyboard player who produces records with me, went up and accepted it — and I know people were probably like, “Who the f— is this guy?” So he called me, and I remember the phone kept ringing, and I’m like “Motherf—, I’m tryin’ to sleep!” But [I answered] and he’s like “Hey man, you won!” “I did? Sh–! Cool!” But that was a different time and I was in a different place in my life.
At the time some reports said you didn’t perform because the Oscars wanted you to do a censored version of the song?
Oh no, that wasn’t the case at all, because there’s not even that many cuss words in it — there’s only a couple. That’s not true at all.
But they did make an offer?
I think they did — yes, [longtime manager Paul Rosenberg] just said they did. He just said they even discussed having someone else perform it, because back then every nominated song had a performer.
Do you know who they were talking about having perform it?
[Asks Rosenberg] No, I don’t think it ever got off the ground.
Is there anyone you think would have been good?
I’d have to think about that one, I don’t have any idea. It probably would have been weird to have someone else do it.
Maybe 50 Cent, who you mentored and whose major-label debut had just come out at the time?
Oh sh–! Back then, if 50 was willing to do it, that’d have been cool… although it’s not really his style of song. Plus, it’s personal.
Back to last night, did you enjoy it?
Absolutely. I got to hug Salma Hayek!
As for how it came together, I heard that “8 Mile” was already in the montage, and the Oscars just happened to ask and you said yes?
I think that’s pretty much how it went. And it was cool because we just put out an album, so we said maybe that’ll make sense with the timing of the new album.
It was a pretty elaborate band, with several musicians and a string section. How long did you rehearse?
We flew in [to Los Angeles] last week, so we probably have four or five rehearsals just to make sure we got everything right. Most of the rehearsals were offsite, not in [the Dolby Theater], just trying to keep it secret.
Why was it so important to keep it secret?
I don’t know, I think it was either [the Oscars’] idea or Paul and [longtime publicist Dennis Dennehy’s] idea before they brought it to me. It was presented to me that way and I said, “Oh that’s kinda dope, to not even announce it.”
Some people wondered if you’ve got another film in the pipeline — do you have any interest in doing more acting?
Um… I’m not gonna say I don’t, because if the right script comes along and it’s something that fits with my schedule I might take another dive in it.
Did you enjoy doing “8 Mile”?
I did … and I didn’t (laughs). There was a lot of stuff that was not, um… It was a lot of work, and it being my first film I was not really expecting that. And it’s tough when you’ve got to be on someone else’s schedule, with the way that I work. But yeah, I’m certainly glad that I did it, and there were parts that were definitely fun, it was just a lot.
You just put out an album three weeks ago, but can you say what you’ve got coming next?
I don’t really have anything coming up next, to be honest, just working this album and whatever videos come along next. But we don’t have anything written in stone just yet.
Any new artists you’re particularly impressed with?
Well, we had Young M.A. on the album, and she’s definitely one of the new artists that I’m super excited about — every time she puts something out, I listen. And the guys we have signed to our label, [Buffalo, N.Y. rap trio] Griselda, that’s exciting. YBN Cordae, he’s dope.
Okay, last question: You’ve gone after President Trump really hard in your lyrics and freestyles and even got interviewed by the Secret Service. Why do you think other major artists aren’t doing the same?
In the hip-hop world, there’s definitely some people that have gone at him. But I kinda feel that I’ve said what I had to say and people know where I stand on it, so … [dead silence, publicist wraps up call].