Big Think Interview With James Lipton

A conversation with the creator and host of “Inside the Actors Studio.”
  • Transcript


Question: What were the most important lessons you learned from struggling to “make it” as a young actor?

James Lipton: I became an actor by accident, not by design. My father was a poet, a rather famous American Beatnik poet, Lawrence Lipton. My mother was a teacher and I was taught to read at the age of 1 ½. Hard to believe, but my mother finally convinced me that it was so – showed me evidence, and I was writing epic poetry by the age of three. Terrible poetry, which I dictated. My father would scrupulously note. By the time I was 12, I had written three novels. I mention that only because my father was a famous eccentric, Beatnik and all that. He also left when I was very young and since my father was a poet, my mother was a teacher, we didn’t exactly wallow in money, and once he was gone, there was nothing. So, it was tough times. The point of that is that I associated my father’s profession with my father’s behavior. And as a result, I ran as far away from it as possible.

That said, when I went to school, my intention was to be a lawyer. When I attended university that was still the clear intention; I was going to be a lawyer. Why? Because it was as far as I could get from my father’s antics and world. I thought that the world of the arts probably led people into the kind of behavior I had seen with him and that had resulted in a lot of hard times for my mother and me. So, that was the intention. However, since we didn’t have any money, I had to work from the age of 13. I worked an assortment of jobs and one of the things I liked to do was acting in school; the way on would in high school. I was a member of the Catholic Theater in Detroit, which is a very good theater group, and I acted there. One night someone came backstage and said to me, “You know, you could earn a living as an actor. You’re good enough.” And at that time, I was a copyboy at the Detroit Times. And I said, well do you think that, not immediately but in time, I might possibly earn as much as an actor as I’m currently earning as a copyboy at the Detroit Times? And he said, “Yes, I think you could count on that.”

So, I became a professional actor in Detroit and I was able to earn some money. It was a good job because it permitted me to study. It fit perfectly with school. And I could – in high school and subsequently in college, I was able to earn money which supported my mother and me; she was working as well. And I could go to school. That was all I cared about. I was going to be a lawyer. I was not going to be a poet. I was not going to write. I stopped writing at the age of 18. I had written incessantly before that. I read, of course, because I was in university, but I wasn’t going to write. I wasn’t going to do any of those dangerous things. I was going to be a stolid, bourgeois lawyer.

And then I decided to come to New York to finish my education and to get the law degree. I arrived in New York and looked around me, and this was a time when New York was teaming with great teachers of acting, Stella Adler, Sandy Misner, Robert Lewis, Harold Kerman, Lee Strasberg, The Actor’s Studio was flourishing, and many of the actors that we remember with great admiration, were living in New York in those days; working in the theater at night, studying at night and in the daytime. This was before the exodus to Los Angeles when television moved out there for real estate reasons, and the actors followed of course. But at that time, it was the golden age of American acting education. 

I looked around me and thought, well, if I’m going to continue to support my schooling and my mother and me, she had moved to New York and she was working, but still I had to work. If I’m going to earn a living at all in this, I’m going to have to compete and it’s a very, very fast track. And so, I started looking around. And one day I walked into a room and there was a woman, flamboyant, dyed blonde hair, stentorian voice, grand gestures; a grand dame, in short. Her name was Stella Adler. She talked to me for awhile and asked me why I wanted to study with her and I told her that I had to earn a living and I wanted to do it as well as I could. I just didn’t like amateurism in anybody else, and certainly not of myself, and I would like to learn how to act; really learn how to act and from everything I had read and heard she was the teacher I would like to study with. And she took me.

I studied with her for 2 ½ years; her course was two years and she asked me to stay an additional six months and assist her when I have finished the course. But about six months into it; it was full time, I woke up one morning and looked into the mirror and said, “Who the hell are you kidding? You don’t want to be a lawyer. Never did want to be a lawyer. This is what you would like to do.” And so it began. I embarked on nearly 12 years of full-time education. I studying 2 ½ years with Stella Adler, four years with Harold Clurman, to whom she had been married. He was a founder of the Group Theater; and two years with Robert Lewis, also out of the Group Theater.

I studied modern dance with Hanya Holm and Alvin Nikolai. I then went on to study classical ballet with Ella Digonova. I studied Cecchetti technique with her and then Russian technique with Benhark Harvey.

It came upon me incrementally and finally, I was clearly, for better or for worse, going to devote my life to these arts.

Question: What did you learn under Stella Adler that can be applied to acting across all genres? 

James Lipton: Stella was, I think, in all the disciplines I studied in my life, the formal disciplines, performance disciplines, she was the best teacher I ever had of anything. Better than any of my university teachers, better than any of the teachers I had worked with in the study of, in the liberal arts study, in the study of the law. She was quite simply the most gifted teacher I ever met. She was inspiring. She was eccentric, sometimes she was quite nutty, but at the core of it was this steely technique which she had acquired over many years and which she had inquired, in fact, from Stanislavski himself.

Now, Stella – there were two streams of the Stanislavski System essentially that came out of the group theater. The two streams exist today. They run parallel to each other and in the end they often cross and reach the same result. Stella was trained at the Group Theater principally by Lee Strasberg, was its teacher and director. Harold Clurman was also running the Group Theater, as was Gerald Crawford.

In 1934, she went to Paris and discovered that Stanislavski was there for the summer and she confronted him and said that his system, which she had been studying scrupulously since these members of the group theater had encountered the Moscow Art Theater when it came to New York in the 1920’s, was driving her crazy. And Stanislavski listened to her complaints and agreed to teach her, which he did, I think for like a month, or six weeks. He trained her in a role. And then she came back to New York and she – there were all of her colleagues at the Group Theater – this was a group, of course, that had changed everything in America. The Group Theater had brought the Stanislavski system into America and they had changed the way actors act, the way writers write, the way directors direct. And they were becoming a dominant force; the dominant force, in theater and ultimately in film. And they were waiting for her and they said, “Well, what did the master have to say?” And she said, “He’s abandoned emotional memory.” Now, that may be meaningless to anybody listening to this, but to an actor it has some meaning.

Emotional memory was what **** taught when she remained behind from the Moscow Art Theater, and Strasberg and others were very influenced by it. It is what people sometimes think of as the Stanislavski System, in which one recalls one’s own experiences that are similar to, or maybe even identical to the experiences of the character and brings back from the core of one’s being the experience. It isn’t really what people think it is. It is more complex and more interesting than I have described it because it isn’t just vanishing from the world and remembering when the dog died and then opening one’s eyes with tears. It’s much more interesting and complicated than that and it involved recalling occurrences in one’s life which evoked emotion similar to the character’s emotions and then one reviews then, but no in the way the public might think. Simply remembering what was the time of day, was it night, was it day. Was it outside, was it inside. It was inside. Do you remember the room? Was the room warm? Cold? Do you see the wallpaper, or the paint, etc. Refining and defining and recalling in the most intimate detail the experience. Not necessarily aloud, but in one’s own recollection. Usually under the guidance of a director, and what happens is that when you reach a certain point in that exercise of affective memory, emotional memory, you begin to relive it so vividly that whatever emotions you had at the time come flooding back.

Now, Stella argued that this took her away from the play, away from the character, away from what was happening in the play. She felt it was an impediment. Many people would disagree with her. There are still actors who use emotional memory, affective memory, which was Lee Strasberg’s emphasis, not his total emphasis. He taught everything at the Actor’s Studio. But nevertheless, she felt that it impeded her. And she said, “I don’t use it anymore.” Stanislavski said for that very reason, and instead I am interested in what the character wants at any given moment. “In the given circumstances you must be rooted in the play. Do not depart from the play. Don’t cut yourself off from your partner in the scene, or partners. Don’t go so deep in yourself that you no longer exist for your partner and for the character and for the play,” said Stanislavski, and said Stella. “You must be so thoroughly immersed in the given circumstances of the play, then you decide what it is at any given moment what that the actor wants. And when you try to achieve what that actor wants, as ardently – as the character wants, I should say – when you try to achieve it, the emotions will come. Just in the act of trying to – if I’m trying to convince you that you must never, ever, ever speak to this person again, I’m going to try to persuade you. That’s my action. I’m going to persuade you never to talk to this – look how already I am animated.” And if it requires an even more powerful action, the animation is going to be complete.

When Mark Rydell, the great director of “On Golden Pond” and other films, and member of The Actor’s Studio, a student of Stanford Meisner; yeah, he was Stanford Meisner’s student as I recall, yes. And on our stage, Inside the Actor’s Studio, he demonstrated for our students, who are master’s degree candidates after all, he said, “Look, I can demonstrate this very easily for you. I’m going to take you and put you in a closet and I’m going to lock that door from the outside. And I will say to you, your action is to get out of the closet, and I mean get out of that closet. You have 60 seconds.” He said, “Well, you’re going to begin to struggle to get out of that closet, but the locked door is the obstacle to that action, which a great playwright writes into every scene.” And he said, “After 30 seconds, you’re going to be emotional. By the time I release the door you’re going to be hysterical. Why? Did you try to remember some moment in your life when you were this emotional? No. You weren’t thinking about that at all. All you were thinking about was getting out of that damned closet.” That was Stella’s emphasis. I’m not saying that either side is correct. As a matter of fact, I think the best possible technique unites the two because there are moments when one has problems with actually accessing the deep and difficult emotions of one’s self and an exercise in emotional memory or affected memory exercise can release it. It can have a wonderful effect.

But for the most part I think Stella emphasized, you can, if you know what you want – Alan Alda on our stage, who had studied this technique said, “There should be a sign over the entrance to every stage as the actor is about to go on stage that says, ‘what do you want?’” And it gets more complicated than that. It is divided into beats, into moment to moment decisions about what the character wants, into an overall action that takes you through the whole play. But generally speaking, this is what Stella taught. And there are exercises that teach you to do it. It’s not easy. It sounds much simpler than it is.

When the two sides divided, so to speak, now they’ve come together again, but for decades there was on the one side, Strasberg and his disciples who emphasized emotional memory, but not exclusively. He’s been maligned in that way. And Stella Adler, Harold Clurman, Robert Lewis, Sanford Meisner, these were the great exponents of the later work of Stanislavski’s life. The action, the objective, the super-objective, which is that overall action that takes you through the play, and the devotion to given circumstances. Both sides emphasize concentration. You have to concentrate in a way that normal people don’t.

When our students come to the Actor’s Studio Drama School at **** University, I was Dean for 10 years, I was the Founding Dean, I am no longer. I am Dean **** now. But I always speak to them when they come to the school. And I say to them. “Look. With the work that you are going to do here, because of these emotional memory exercises; they are also called sense memory, they are the memory of our five senses. That’s all we have. And it will make you extremely sensitive. You are about to separate yourself from the rest of the world. There will come a point in your education in our school, at any good school, where you achieve what’s called, “breakthrough.” Where for the first time you cross a barrier and it’s the Rubicon and you can never go back again. You now sense more than other people. You will see more, hear more, feel more, etc. than other people do and you will be sensitive to the moment, the partner, the action, to your partner’s action, which may conflict with yours and to the play in a way in which other people are not.” And then I would add to that the fact that all of these great teachers, Strasberg, Stella, Meisner, Lewis, Clurman, all of them, they emphasize listening.

Now, you’re listening to me, right? When you speak to me, I am listening to you. In life we listen to other people. Listen with varying degrees of concentration and attention, right? Actors must learn to listen in a different way. Alan Alda, who really understands these things very well, I think, on our stage “Inside the Actors Studio,” said, “The way to understand listening, the act and art of listening is the following: if what you hear changes you in any way, you’ve heard it, you listened. If it doesn’t, and we all listen, we listen all the time in our lives, we’re listening to television, we’re listening to our mates at dinner, we’re listening to the traffic in the street, we listen, but this is a different kind of listening. This is a listening that is so acute that is so focused and concentrated that if the other person, the other actor says, I have some very bad news for you, your mother has died, it really hits. It’s not a stage. It’s not makeup. It’s not scenery and costumes. Somebody had just told you that you, the character, the character’s mother has died and it doesn’t have to be that big, it could be a small thing, but you are listening.”

I often ask our guests, we’ve had 250 of them in 16 years on “Inside the Actor’s Studio” and of our school. What’s the single most important thing that you would tell an actor? “Listen. Listen.” But it’s that particular kind of listening of which an actor becomes capable in time, it doesn’t happen in a day. That and patience. And as Paul Newman said, when he was the first guest of “Inside the Actors Studio.” 16 years ago, and someone said, give me one word. Paul said, “Persistence.” Persistence. And then he told a lie. “I was born an ordinary actor. I will die an ordinary actor. But I’ve persisted.” Of course that was the lie. Not that he persisted, but that he was ordinary. He was anything but.

Question: What lessons has your career as a writer taught you?

James Lipton: I must confess that when I’m alone in my study, here in New York, writing; that’s when I’m happy. Really, that’s when I’m unequivocally happy. I may be writing well, I may be writing poorly, but I enjoy the act of writing and sometimes when it turns out okay, I feel an elation that is incomparable. A good day’s writing, when I turn off my computer after I know that I’ve written okay, or as well as I can write, that’s a day well spent. I love writing. I like reading, other people, not myself. The Pivot Questionnaire that I ask other people, when I have on rare occasion answered it, the answer to the question, “What turns you on?” Is words. Not mine, other people’s. Words, words, words, that’s what turns me on. So, I would say that writing, both the act of writing, and of course reading of other people’s work is, for me, supreme joy. Always accepting the greatest joy of all is the time that I get to spend with my wife.

Question: What’s a writing project that’s turned out well for you, and what did you learn from it?

James Lipton:I cornered the market on the most peculiar habit of the English language, namely the designation of groups of things by a term. We all know a few, a gaggle of geese, a pride of lions, a host of angels, and we use them without thinking about them. A chorus of complaint. One day I suddenly thought to myself, why a gaggle of geese, why a pride of lions? A pride of lions – pride, really, it is the quintessence of a lion; he’s proud. Who said that we will capture the entire quintessence of this beast in a single word, a pride of lions? And that started me on a search that lasted for years. It took me finally to the bowels of the main reading room of the British museum where I was actually in possession, at last, of the original books of hunting in which these terms were compiled; principally The Book Of St. Albans. This is 15th century stuff. And I discovered it was a charm of finches, properly, when the only profession a gentleman could ever admit to was hunting. So he had to know the proper terms. He saw a charm of finches, an unkindness of ravens, a parliament of owls, an exaltation of larks, a leap of leopards. I mean, these are beautiful terms; an ostentation of peacocks. I was fascinated, and there they were, these lists that were compiled in the 15th century. Some of the first books every printed in England, it was that important.

And then I discovered a pontificality of prelates, a superfluity of nuns. And I thought, my god, they were playing word games with them in the 15th century. And I finally compiled all of the original terms with their provenances. And that took a lot of digging because most of them are in Middle English. So, I had to translate out of Middle English into modern English. And I fell in love with them and I began to invite my own. An acre of dentists. In the 15th century, they said a rascal of boys. So, I said an acne of adolescents, a lurch of buses, a slouch of models, and an unction of undertakers, in a larger group, an extreme unction of undertakers. And I couldn’t stop. It was like eating peanuts. And I wrote this big book, which became the definitive book on this subject and ultimately all the introductions that I wrote to the various sections of it became a love letter to this magnificent English language.

It’s been used as a textbook in countless schools. It’s been published all over the world. And you’ll have to forgive me for bragging, you can discount 50% of this because I’m saying it, but all the same, it is my letter to the world. And if people would ask me, is there one book that you’ve written that means the most to you, clearly it’s "An Exaltation of Larks."

Question: What is the collective term for actors?

James Lipton: There was in Shakespeare’s time also a collective term. They were called “a cry of players.” Isn’t that pretty? A cry of players. I decided that in my time, they would be a queue of actors. Q-U-E-U-E. A line. A queue of actors. That’s my term for it. Though I think a cry of players is probably a lot better.

Question: How do you prepare for interviews?

James Lipton: With great care. That happened also by happenstance. In 1994, I had by then, at the urging of Norman Mailer and his wife Norris Church and others; I had gone over to the Actors Studio to see what they were doing. I had been trained by Stella, it was a different world, but I went over there. And Norman said, “You’ve got to come over, we’re doing good work. We’re doing interesting work.” I went over and saw what they were doing and I liked it a lot. And I became involved in the studio and the work and began to work there and ultimately became a member, and very deeply involved in the work at the studio. By this time, Strasberg had long since passed away. I never got to meet him, I regret to say. I was so involved in the work I eventually became a member of the board of the Actors Studio. And just before I became a member of the board, I became aware, as we all did, that in those parlous times, 1994, for cultural institutions, that the Studio, which had never been a school, never charged a tuition, which had never been a club, that charged membership fees, that had been living hand to mouth since 1947, that like any other cultural institution, it was impoverished. And one night after we had been discussing it and how the Studio could possibly survive under these circumstances, I woke up the next morning and had an idea. It was crystal clear in detail. It was to create a school. For the first time, a degree-granting school in a university, under the aegis of The Actors Studio with all the core courses to be taught by life members of the Actors Studio.

We created the program, the Actor’s Theater Drama School and in the fall of 1994, we opened our doors to the public. Within three years, we were the largest graduate drama school in America. And today, of course, we are at Pace University, and we are bigger and better than ever.

So here we were, it was 1994, September, we opened our doors. We were accredited, Masters Degree Program, three year NFA. And I said to myself – and they said to me, by the way, “This was your idea Jim, you’ve led the group that created the curriculum” – others participated, Ellen Burstyn, Bob Blanco, and Lee Grant, and Carolyn Glenn, and Norman Mailer, Paul Newman. And they said, “Look, this is your idea, you can’t walk away from it, not you’ve got to start it.” I said, “I’m finishing the book of lyrics to my third musical.” They said, “You’ve got to at least get it started.” I said, “Okay. I’ll do it for a year.” I did it for 10 years and became its founding Dean because I fell so in love with it. But, I was now – I had this Master’s Degree program. And I had people to teach all year long, I had people who would come and do a six-week workshop, and then I thought, I’ve got to attract to us our colleagues, members of The Studio, colleagues that we worked with outside the studio, in films and theater. I’ve got to bring them there for one night. They can only give me one night of their lives. Okay. I wrote a letter. Give me one night of your life. Teach our students, and I’ll conduct this seminar. And I got a response from Paul Newman, Dennis Hopper, Alec Baldwin, Sally Fields, and I sent a letter back into the professional community from which I had come saying that these people are liable to say something that is worth preserving. That means television cameras. We can’t afford them. Anybody interested? And Bravo, the Bravo network, which was then very small, took this existential leap with us. And so it began.

Anyway, there we were and I had this school now and we had this – I had this Monday evenings I had this seminar, and there were television cameras. I made two fateful decisions. One, we’re a school. We will always be a school. This will always be a class. Therefore, we are not interested in gossip, we’re interested in craft. We will be about craft. Which is not exactly a goldmine in television; and nevertheless, it will be about craft. And second, there will be no pre-interview. I’d been on all the television programs as an actor, as a writer, as a director, as a producer. I’d been on everybody else’s show and there was always a preinterview. Somebody would come with a tape recorder and you’d talk for three or four hours, and they’d take it back and it would be transcribed, and it would be given to the writers, those many writers you see on all those shows, Larry King, Letterman, Leno, etc. And then they choose the answers that will be most evocative on their show. And then they write the questions that will evoke them and they give them to the host. Well, they do five shows a week, so they have to do it that way. I couldn’t do it. They’re much smarter than I am, much cleverer. But no, I said there was going to be no pre-interview.

What did that mean? I had to do the homework. No one else. It takes me two weeks to prepare for each guest. I work seven days a week and I work about 12 hours a day, from the beginning of September to about the end of May; the school year. I take two days off, Christmas and New Year’s, Thanksgiving sometimes – two and a half. And the result is that I bonded myself to my desk. I “grappled myself to it with hoops of steel,” to quote the Bard. And I do that homework myself. I have a mass of raw material which is provided to me by a graduate of our school, Jeremy ****, which gives me everything that exists on this particular person. And then I have two weeks in which to shape it and turn it into a narrative, which is what our show is intended to be; a beginning, a middle, and an end, with themes that occur and reoccur. And then I put them on my PowerPoint in my computer and I put them on blue cards with questions that will evoke the answers, hopefully, that I have found in their personal and professional histories. And there are about 400 or 500 of those cards for each person.

You asked about my preparation, and that’s my preparation, and it all began with the decision that there would be no pre-interview. The guests and I have talked about it often. It’s as if it were a circus tent with a rope ladder on one end, a rope ladder on the other, I go up one rope ladder, the guest goes up the other, and we meet on a high wire with no net for four to five hours. That’s how long they’re with me on our stage because it’s a class. I edit it out to an hour, occasionally for two hours for a two-hour special, but that – we’re up there. And there’s no net because the guest doesn’t know what’s coming next. And I have no guarantee that they’ll give me the answer that I think I’m going to find from the research that I’ve done and that’s on my card.

Question: As a licensed pilot, what have you found is most important in flying a plane?

James Lipton: This is not going to come as a surprise. Concentration. You’re taking a plane off the ground, from the moment those wheels leave the ground; you’re PIC, Pilot in Command. Anybody else sitting in that airplane, you’re in charge. You’ve got to get them back there. Landing the airplane I think is the most difficult thing that I’ve every learned to do in my life. Most people agree. That’s why so many people never finish their training, they just can’t do it. And the wonderful thing about it is that when you’re – say you’re coming in for a landing and you’re in a busy environment, there are other airplanes there, the control tower is talking to you, they’re talking fast, they’re talking to you in this pilot’s speak, which is cursory and mysterious until you learn it. All these things are happening at once and the ground is coming up at you and you’re moving at about 125 mph. So, it’s happening fast, right? And the result is that you can’t think about anything else. It erases the rest of the world, which is a wonderful reason to go flying. And it is the same as in acting in that respect. It’s total concentration until you see that center line go right between your legs, dividing your body in half, and you hear the squeak of the wheels as you make a nice, nice soft landing. Then roll out. Concentration.

My favorite sport demands the same thing of me. I realized it long since that this is why both of these things appeal to me because they force me to focus on them and not on anything else that I have brought with me from my life, from the world, no worries, no aspirations, no ideas, no plans, no nothing. You just focus. And that is, I became a show jumper. I jumped horses over big dangerous fences in competition. And got very, very good at it, at quite a high level. And I realized long since that, yeah, it’s the same thing that appeals to me about it. You can’t think about anything else, in either case; jumping horses in competition, show jumping, or flying an airplane, for whatever purpose. You are the PIC, and the alternative to doing it correctly is death, or injury. I’ve been injured badly on horses. I finally stopped seven years ago when I had a very bad injury and had to be helicoptered into New York. But, I miss it. I’ll miss it until the day I die, and I’m convinced to this day that I can get on a horse and jump a course of fences satisfactorily. It doesn’t leave you. I’ve described myself as a recovering equestrian. Taking it one day at a time. These are two things that I love very, very much. And I realize that I love them for the same reason. Why? Because they involve risk.

Question: What is your favorite passage in Shakespeare?

James Lipton: Well, I’ve played Hamlet when I was a student with Robert Lewis, he assigned me Hamlet. And I would say, I am – Mildred Dunnock, who was the original wife in “Death of a Salesman,” who was also a student in that class. And she agreed to play my mother, Gertrude. So, I would pick a scene. I won’t dare to recite any of it now, but it would be the arras scene, the scene with his mother, “Look here upon this portrait and on this” – that whole scene because it’s so exquisitely written. So perfectly written. The emotions are so accessible in the character, so clear. I would say that scene, the entire scene.

Recorded February 9, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen