Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
I have been very, very bad at doing my part to put up solo posts on our blog.
I have decided to rectify the situation by coming up with a topic that I’m passionate about, and I came up with the lovely topic grace a my friend and fellow blogger Kit (@kitembleton). Plus, I was just telling her how I like shout-outs, so it would be mean not to a) acknowledge her help in me arriving at my topic and b) shouting out.
The topic is pretty simple, and yet, twofold. Because I am an elegant lady.
So in case you aren’t dorky enough to know what ITAS stands for, it’s “Inside the Actors Studio,” a lovely program that is aired on BRAVO and has been since 1994–that’s almost old enough to get drafted, if you think 1994 wasn’t so long ago. There are many reasons why I love this program so much, but the crux of it is this: It is part of a course of study for masters candidates at a drama program in New York City. MFA Students all come and sit in a lovely auditorium and watch their dean, James Lipton, interview accomplished actors about everything. He “starts at the beginning. Where were you born?” and then he moves through childhood, getting the acting bug, school, early career, well-known career / fame, and then sometimes into other areas, like transitioning into directing, stand-up, celebrity, and personal troubles. He doesn’t shy away from bad behavior or regrettable decisions, but he is eminently respectful and non-judgmental.
For those of you who don’t know, the Actors Studio is an actual institution, not a clever title for the seminar / tv program. It is a non-profit that was founded in Manhattan in 1947 by a group including Elia Kazan. It is a place to study using a particular theory of acting called the Stanislavski method and it has an artistic director and a president as well as students and members. To give you a hint of its prestige, its current presidents are Ellen Burstyn, Al Pacino and Harvey Keitel, and some former artistic directors include Estelle Parsons and Lee Strasbourg, among the most famous acting teachers there have been in America. Included in the alumna are a lot of really impressive individuals, but just to name a few who are both members and former students, in alphabetical order: Bee Arthur, Alec Baldwin, Anne Bancroft, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Robert De Niro, Bruce Dern, John Goodman, Gene Hackman, Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Hopper, Cloris Leachman, Sidney Lumet, Norman Mailer, Jack Nicholson, Sidney Poitier, Christopher Walken, Eli Wallach, Gene Wilder, Tennessee Williams and Joanne Woodward. Among a newer generation are Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper.
The show gets mocked a lot because James Lipton has this insane gravity to him, but he is also cheesy and he tends toward melodrama now and then with his praise. Try this parody. This, I don’t mind, for a number of reasons. One, it’s good to flatter someone you’re both trying to interview and coax into teaching acting students something about acting, what it means to be successful, and how to handle a spotlight on you instead of your work. Two, it makes good television. Three, he has an incredible sense of humor about it, and even let Will Ferrell, who’s imitated (aka mocked) him on “SNL,” turn the tables on him when he was on the program. The interview has a standard pattern and I could probably recite the questions that appear over and over again; as time has gone on, Lipton himself has also observed what he calls “common themes,” the most prominent one in his mind being divorced parents. He is genuinely curious and also tells the actors what others have said about them, both in print (reviews, interviews, etc.) and in person to him when they appeared on the program.
I think it’s extraordinary, but my favorite part is that almost every episode I’ve watched, I felt as though, for the most part, I was seeing the real person, and not The Star or just their persona. For the older actors, it’s sometimes easier I think because they’re long-established, more like royalty; they have less pressing fears about perceptions and the paparazzi. The only exception that comes to mind is Meryl Streep, who is both entirely natural and somehow vaguely disingenuous–or that was my feeling. Whether it’s paranoia or truth, can’t tell you. What I love is the surprise of finding out who’s really shy (Renee Zellweger); who is incredibly passionate about being an actor, so much so that I kind of choked up (I’m looking at you, mostly-former bad boys Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, Robert Downey Jr and Russell Crowe); and who’s really just very calm and even-keeled in real life (mostly the girls: Hilary Swank, Amy Poehler, Laura Linney, Halle Berry and Jennifer Connolly); and who was surprisingly engaging, hilarious and touching (Ralph Fiennes and Diane Lane come to mind).
Now, I never seem to catch them on BRAVO. I admit, I find most of them on YouTube and legitimately IMDb has a few episodes available. Why cheat, if I love it so much? The answer is simple: Netflix doesn’t offer full seasons. You can get discs of like “the best men” sorts of things, but not straight up seasons. Shame on them, really!
The show is mesmerizing. Sometimes people are precisely who you know they’re going to be–like Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Williams, Denis Leary, Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie–but there’s always a surprise. And they swear, and are honest about things that a lot of times actors don’t really get to discuss in the world of sound bites. I love this sort of thing even more than I love watching The Hollywood Reporter‘s roundtables of the forerunners of Emmy nominees (by female/male and by drama/comedy) and then Oscar nominees (roundtables female/male and co-ed panels). All of this I find at THR‘s site or again at YouTube. It’s the chance to see actors among other actors, to be offered a series of insights that I can’t find even on my favorite interview programs like “Chelsea Lately” and “Jimmy Fallon” even though I love both shows because they engage and pull playfulness and ease out of their guests.
For anyone who’s never watched, I would go with some actor you think is a total crazy wing-nut douche rocket and watch them. Try on Tom Cruise, for example. Or, you could go the other way and watch someone like Michelle Pfeiffer, and remember that she’s worked an awful lot for you to usually only think of Hairspray. (Not that I don’t love it, ’cause I do, but it’s no Scarface.) And then, once you’re hooked to the gills, watch the people you just can’t imagine the movies without, like Barbra Steisand and Morgan Freeman and Robert Redford. Watch all of that, and tell me you’re not moved. Tell me you don’t like each person just a little bit more for hearing them talk about things unrelated to PR campaigns and deflecting questions about their sex lives. Tell me you don’t think it’s great to see who shows up in suits, who dances and plays piano and sings, who bonds with Lipton over his favorite things (that would be flying and tattoos), and what each actor’s favorite curse word is. Which they say. Thank you, British people, for saying the C-word on BRAVO (another shout out).
You might learn something, watching the bullshit of celebrity not really anywhere in sight. You might learn something, listening to someone you think of as A Star or A Celebrity or A Famous Action Star and learn how hard they studied, how they choose their parts, their hardships, how it felt to work with other actors and directors, and how grateful they are for the work. You might feel a strange envy or yearning in you, to love something with such depth, with such complicated feelings. You might wish you could boil down everything you love about this world and all the people in it and say you basically drink that boiled brew every day of your life because all of that makes up your job. You might, just might, even remember to give actors some credit for being more than good bodies and symmetrical faces that make you a little flushed in the face, and wonder if by worshipping constructions of beauty and success, we’ve blown through every boundary of privacy and decency and made actors into people forced to parody themselves even to get a cup of coffee, so that in turn (vicious cycle!) you don’t respect them, not really.
I want you to wonder if you could do that. Could you do that? Think about the indignity of women and men needing to construct a public personality which they can never escape thanks to telephoto lenses and gossip rags and acceptable behavior (which is not new for actors, don’t mistake me). Think about the horror of having photographs taken of your babies, your family, your cars and your house every day of your life. Think about the terror that would grip you at the thought of how boxed in you are by this persona you’ve been made to adapt; think of the terror of trying a new genre, trying theatre, or dating or marrying someone. Now think about how much you would have to really, really fucking love what you do to put up with that, forever.
Okay, or you’re a greedy asshole who’s basically a sociopath anyway. But I’m not talking about you, because you’ve never been nor will you ever be a guest on “Inside the Actors Studio” being asked by James Lipton what your favorite sound or noise is. So you can suck it, wanna-bes and celebrities. Or you’re a fine enough actor, but you’re a complete and utter waste of space without ethics, common sense or any understanding of sincerity…
Don’t worry, I’m not dumb or naive enough to paint ALL working actors with one brush, NOOOO WAY. I’m simply pointing out that the people who grace “ITAS” have worthwhile things to say and you might be impressed and learn something. Let’s face it, talentless hacks with no personality or too much personality and no talent aren’t invited to the show. Even people in your head you’re thinking, “Yeah, Zoe, I’m on IMDb looking at the list of guests and I’m thinking… THAT GUY sucks balls,” here’s my answer. Nicolas Cage. Yeah, he has spent the last, oh, almost decade making some truly useless films, but before that, he was incredible. May I present in order of appearance: Peggy Sue Got Married, Raising Arizona, Moonstruck, Guarding Tess, Leaving Lass Vegas and Adaptation. Tell me any of these movies sucked, and I will probably slap you in the face, even if I don’t mean to / would never otherwise want to.
I just want you to know, I relished writing that. Doesn’t make me $12 million and won’t even if I count cumulatively the second before I die, but damn, do I feel passion about words the way some people feel passion about performing. Grab onto that thing you love, whether it’s numbers, words, cars, stocks, a basketball or a cutting board, and dive into it, don’t forget why you love it. Be a little envious that it probably won’t make you tons of dollar dollar bills or known by like 99% of the world on sight. But then just add things up, write something, build an engine, trade some stocks, shoot some hoops and make some dinner, and think about how if the world were a little different, someone would want to put you on a stage and respectfully listen to you talk about how you first decided you want to be an accountant / copy editor / mechanic / gym teacher.