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Culture & Religion

Joel Grey on the “Honor” of Being an Actor

Spanning over 69 years, and taking him from vaudeville theater to feature films to Broadway to television series, Joel Grey has had a storied career as an actor and entertainer. He is best known for his role as Master of Ceremonies in the musical and film versions of “Cabaret” (for which he won a Tony and Academy Awards, respectively), but Grey has appeared in a wide variety of dramatic roles of all kinds. Acting, he says, is “exhausting” in the way it affects every part of the actor’s life. “It’s such a solitary, lonely and thrilling circumstance that you’re taking on someone else’s character and that responsibility,” he says.

In his Big Think interview, Grey talked about how acting can be a “hard” and “difficult” life, the “honor” that feels while acting makes it worthwhile, saying it’s “The honor of being able to change a person’s life by what it is you do.  By illuminating an idea. By being the instrument… people come to the theater in a bad mood and they see something that cheers them and takes their mind off it.  That’s a responsibility and an honor.  And I just think I’m very lucky to have always wanted it for that reason because it’s like a higher calling, in a way.”

Grey says he first knew he wanted to be an actor during the first stage performance he saw, when he was just nine years old. “I sort of knew that I could sing and dance, you know, around the grandparents and that sort of thing, but I was taken to the theater by my mother—a children’s theater called ‘The Curtain Pullers,’ in Cleveland, Ohio—and I watched the show and I said, ‘I want to do that,'” he recalls. “And that was it.  I mean, it’s never, ever changed.  I knew what it was I was going to do at that moment.  How, I don’t know how to explain that, but it sort of gave me a purpose and a place to put all of my particular chaos into something very productive.”

Grey also spoke about the “magical” and “ephemeral” charms of live theater, pointing out that the “performance that you see, no one else will see that.  It’s yours.  And the experience that the actor has on stage is, ‘Wow, something happened tonight.  Something extra.’ The extra doesn’t happen when it’s already a film or a television show.  The extra.”


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