Question: How do you prepare for a role?
Joel Grey: Well when I read a script, the important thing is that I can connect in some way with that character and have some idea from what his story that I can tell that story too, because that’s all acting is, is storytelling. And sometimes the characters are way out there and they take a lot of looking to find the connection between me, as I know me, and the character that’s been written by this hopefully gifted author.
Acting always affects every part of your life because it’s such a solitary, lonely and thrilling circumstance that you’re taking on someone else’s character and that responsibility. It’s exhausting. And I remember I used to try things out as a character on friends and relatives and they would say, “What’s wrong with you? Are you ill? Why are you stuttering? You don’t stutter.” But the character stuttered, so I stuttered. You know, just to sort of see, was I doing it right. Naughty.
Question: Is it different acting for the stage as opposed to for the screen?
Joel Grey: I don’t think it’s particularly different... storytelling. And I think the director is in charge in a film. No matter what you do, he can change what you do. He can change the thought you had; he can change the point of view that you believe your character should be expressing. And if he doesn’t, he can alter that. On the stage, we’re in charge. It’s the actor’s medium.
On a movie, generally speaking, if it’s a quality movie, you have a long time to prepare and they do that... 10, 15 takes sometimes. So you have to prepare for yourself for that rhythm as opposed to television where they say, “Oh, we’re running out of time, can you do this quickly.” And you’re lucky if you get two takes. But they’re both challenging and interesting. I just think you end up getting a more spontaneous response to... when you’re doing a television show, and you get a chance to maybe carve something the way you do in a rehearsal for a play if you have a longer period of time working on a project.
Question: What’s the hardest role you’ve had to play?
Joel Grey: Well, if they’re ambitious, they’re all hard. There was an intensity and a darkness to the character to the Master of Ceremonies that it was sort of depressing. I mean, being the embodiment of the Nazi Party, you know, it meant I had a lot of responsibility to say that clearly as an actor. And then I played George M. Cohan in a musical and it was so relentless in terms of my being on the stage that the aspect of having enough energy to do it eight times a week was really challenging. I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever had a harder, a physically harder role, than that.
Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman