Big Think Interview With Joel Grey
Joel Grey has worked as an actor, singer and dancer for over 65 years in a wide variety of roles on the stage and screen. He is best known for his role as Master of Ceremonies in the Broadway show (and film adaptation) Cabaret. He is a recipient of the Tony Award, Academy Award, Golden Globe Award, and BAFTA. In recent years, he has had roles in the film "Dancer in the Dark," "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," "Oz," "Law and Order: Criminal Intent" and "Grey's Anatomy." He also has published three books of art photography, "Pictures I Had to Take" (2003), "Looking Hard at Unexpected Things" (2006), and "1.3 Images From My Phone." Grey is currently directing a one-night only staged reading of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart to raise funds for The Actors Fund and Friends In Deed.
Question: When did you know you wanted to be an actor?
Joel Grey: Well, I didn’t know who I was gonna be and I was actually, I guess, I was questioning that even in my early, early years because I sort of was in a chaotic family. And 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.” 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. And I loved it. And I learned so much.
I think I learned more about the theater and about my craft in those three years between nine and 12 than I ever did again. And I studied with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and Wynn Handman and I’ve worked with some great people and learned a lot, but I think that what I learned between nine and 12 has had a tremendous impact on who I am as an actor.
Question: What are some of the more memorable things that you've experienced on stage?
Joel Grey: My very first experience in this play “On Borrowed Time” that I did when I was nine. And I had a death scene, and I actually was on the stage and I heard people sobbing in the audience. I thought, “Wow. Wow! This is the real thing.” This is what the theater’s about. And the fact that I can be a part of that. Because very often when people have an experience in the theater, they very learn some life lessons. So there’s something that you kind of feel is maybe important, even if it’s to one person.
And then I was on stage with my father who was a great Yiddish comedian, and I was 16 years old. And I didn’t know how to sing or dance, but I wanted to be on the stage, so he gave me a part in his variety show and I came out and I’m singing this song and the audience is hysterical. And it wasn’t a funny song. So, finally somebody in the front row I think went—and I went, oops. And then I don’t know what made me do it, but it wasn’t just smart. I said, “I never got such a big hand on my opening.” And that’s at 16.
A very strange thing that happened, I was working out in Summer Stock and at the end of the show I was taking a bow and you know, sometimes people reach up to you and there was this young man who reached up to me and as I looked at him I saw in his eyes, there was something wrong. And he in fact, pulled me off the stage into the pit. And luckily I didn’t get hurt, but those are some of the chances you take. And of course, I’ve been injured on the stage and injured in movies and I can... you know, dancing just takes every muscle, especially if you’re not a dancer, a natural dancer. I’m essentially an actor. And the fact that I got away with singing and dancing for a long time is still a miracle to me.
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.
Question: What makes live performances so special?
Joel Grey: It’s more ephemeral. I mean that 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.
There’s always going to be a bunch of people who want to sit in a room and hear a story. And also, see the humanity of hearing that story from a live person, that it’s gonna, you know... No performance, live performance, is the same. And if it hasn’t been filmed and you were there and it was great, it was just... it was only in your memory. It becomes something magical in that way. That’s very appealing and compelling to me. I love to go to the theater.
I saw Lee J. Cobb in “Death of a Salesman” when I was about 15 and I couldn’t get up from my seat in the theater I was so... I was weeping and I was upset. And I find that people are still like that in a similar circumstance in a theater today, where they just can’t get up. It’s too heartbreaking. Or somehow you respond to it. And it touches a nerve. But that doesn’t happen in the same way when you’re sitting having a Big Mac in front of your television set and the popcorn going on and the kids are pulling at you. And you know, it requires... the theater requires an audience that’s equally focus as the actor for it to really happen.
Question: You advised your daughter Jennifer not to go into acting initially. Why?
Joel Grey: Oh, it’s hard. Acting is very, very difficult. It’s a difficult life and you have to want it with every bone in your body, every ounce of your being to be able to take the rejection and the physical toll. And as a dad, I knew that very well and I didn’t think that that was something that I should encourage, certainly not as a kid actor, because I had no childhood. I didn’t have... didn’t do any of the things... I didn’t do, you know, pals and the prom and all that. I was a stage kid very early. And I wanted her to have that average experience. And then if she wanted, when she graduated college, I thought, then she could, in fact, yes, follow a career. But she didn’t’ listen to me, as kids don’t. And she needed to act. She needed it. And so she started to do it when she was 16 and there was no turning back, and no changing her mind. And when I saw how good she was, I felt better about it. I thought, oh she could have a career. Oh she’ll be safe. I mean, you want your kids to be safe. That’s what the whole thing’s about.
Question: What would you tell someone starting out as an actor today?
Joel Grey: Don’t do it! No. I would say: if acting or a career in dance or opera is what you want, you have to be prepared for it to be the hardest thing that ever happened. And if you can’t think of doing anything else in life, if you just can’t imagine yourself doing anything... that’s the way to do it. And then you put yourself in a position where you go to school, you go to acting school and you work in Summer Stock and you work in regional theater, and you take class and you may become... you may have it. But if you don’t have that belief in yourself and the desire to do it, that’s burning... if the burning isn’t there. And if it’s about success and about notoriety, forget it. That’s a bad path. It can come, but that’s not the thing that should motivate anybody ‘cause they’re going to get a resounding slap in the face.
Question: Are there particular aspects of the theater business that make it hard for young actors?
Joel Grey: I think if you’re good, you’re good. You know? And I think people can get into the wrong stuff and it’s up to them and their karma and whatever the plan in life for this person is to get out of that and sometimes come to the theater to find out what it is they really want to do. And then they sometimes go back. But if you like... like on some reality show or something like that, it’s really bizarre. It’s bizarre because that’s, that’s... I think a lot of people want to be in show business because of the athletes. The fact that we so lionize our athletes and they are paid such astronomical sums. I think people think, "Oh, I can do that." You know, if they’re working in the theater and they see "America’s Got Talent" and whatever, there’s always been those talent shows that make people think, “Oh, I can do that.” And everybody can’t do that.
Question: What's the best part about being an actor?
Joel Grey: The thing about acting that, for me, is always driven me is the honor of it. 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. And that I could be a part of that.
Recorded September 9, 2010
Interviewed by David Hirschman
A conversation with the actor.
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How would the ability to genetically customize children change society? Sci-fi author Eugene Clark explores the future on our horizon in Volume I of the "Genetic Pressure" series.
- A new sci-fi book series called "Genetic Pressure" explores the scientific and moral implications of a world with a burgeoning designer baby industry.
- It's currently illegal to implant genetically edited human embryos in most nations, but designer babies may someday become widespread.
- While gene-editing technology could help humans eliminate genetic diseases, some in the scientific community fear it may also usher in a new era of eugenics.
Tribalism and discrimination<p>One question the "Genetic Pressure" series explores: What would tribalism and discrimination look like in a world with designer babies? As designer babies grow up, they could be noticeably different from other people, potentially being smarter, more attractive and healthier. This could breed resentment between the groups—as it does in the series.</p><p>"[Designer babies] slowly find that 'everyone else,' and even their own parents, becomes less and less tolerable," author Eugene Clark told Big Think. "Meanwhile, everyone else slowly feels threatened by the designer babies."</p><p>For example, one character in the series who was born a designer baby faces discrimination and harassment from "normal people"—they call her "soulless" and say she was "made in a factory," a "consumer product." </p><p>Would such divisions emerge in the real world? The answer may depend on who's able to afford designer baby services. If it's only the ultra-wealthy, then it's easy to imagine how being a designer baby could be seen by society as a kind of hyper-privilege, which designer babies would have to reckon with. </p><p>Even if people from all socioeconomic backgrounds can someday afford designer babies, people born designer babies may struggle with tough existential questions: Can they ever take full credit for things they achieve, or were they born with an unfair advantage? To what extent should they spend their lives helping the less fortunate? </p>
Sexuality dilemmas<p>Sexuality presents another set of thorny questions. If a designer baby industry someday allows people to optimize humans for attractiveness, designer babies could grow up to find themselves surrounded by ultra-attractive people. That may not sound like a big problem.</p><p>But consider that, if designer babies someday become the standard way to have children, there'd necessarily be a years-long gap in which only some people are having designer babies. Meanwhile, the rest of society would be having children the old-fashioned way. So, in terms of attractiveness, society could see increasingly apparent disparities in physical appearances between the two groups. "Normal people" could begin to seem increasingly ugly.</p><p>But ultra-attractive people who were born designer babies could face problems, too. One could be the loss of body image. </p><p>When designer babies grow up in the "Genetic Pressure" series, men look like all the other men, and women look like all the other women. This homogeneity of physical appearance occurs because parents of designer babies start following trends, all choosing similar traits for their children: tall, athletic build, olive skin, etc. </p><p>Sure, facial traits remain relatively unique, but everyone's more or less equally attractive. And this causes strange changes to sexual preferences.</p><p>"In a society of sexual equals, they start looking for other differentiators," he said, noting that violet-colored eyes become a rare trait that genetically engineered humans find especially attractive in the series.</p><p>But what about sexual relationships between genetically engineered humans and "normal" people? In the "Genetic Pressure" series, many "normal" people want to have kids with (or at least have sex with) genetically engineered humans. But a minority of engineered humans oppose breeding with "normal" people, and this leads to an ideology that considers engineered humans to be racially supreme. </p>
Regulating designer babies<p>On a policy level, there are many open questions about how governments might legislate a world with designer babies. But it's not totally new territory, considering the West's dark history of eugenics experiments.</p><p>In the 20th century, the U.S. conducted multiple eugenics programs, including immigration restrictions based on genetic inferiority and forced sterilizations. In 1927, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that forcibly sterilizing the mentally handicapped didn't violate the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes wrote, "… three generations of imbeciles are enough." </p><p>After the Holocaust, eugenics programs became increasingly taboo and regulated in the U.S. (though some states continued forced sterilizations <a href="https://www.uvm.edu/~lkaelber/eugenics/" target="_blank">into the 1970s</a>). In recent years, some policymakers and scientists have expressed concerns about how gene-editing technologies could reanimate the eugenics nightmares of the 20th century. </p><p>Currently, the U.S. doesn't explicitly ban human germline genetic editing on the federal level, but a combination of laws effectively render it <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">illegal to implant a genetically modified embryo</a>. Part of the reason is that scientists still aren't sure of the unintended consequences of new gene-editing technologies. </p><p>But there are also concerns that these technologies could usher in a new era of eugenics. After all, the function of a designer baby industry, like the one in the "Genetic Pressure" series, wouldn't necessarily be limited to eliminating genetic diseases; it could also work to increase the occurrence of "desirable" traits. </p><p>If the industry did that, it'd effectively signal that the <em>opposites of those traits are undesirable. </em>As the International Bioethics Committee <a href="https://academic.oup.com/jlb/advance-article/doi/10.1093/jlb/lsaa006/5841599#204481018" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">wrote</a>, this would "jeopardize the inherent and therefore equal dignity of all human beings and renew eugenics, disguised as the fulfillment of the wish for a better, improved life."</p><p><em>"Genetic Pressure Volume I: Baby Steps"</em><em> by Eugene Clark is <a href="http://bigth.ink/38VhJn3" target="_blank">available now.</a></em></p>
We look back at a year ravaged by a global pandemic, economic downturn, political turmoil and the ever-worsening climate crisis.
Billions are at risk of missing out on the digital leap forward, as growing disparities challenge the social fabric.
Image: Global Risks Report 2021<h3>Widespread effects</h3><p>"The immediate human and economic costs of COVID-19 are severe," the report says. "They threaten to scale back years of progress on reducing global poverty and inequality and further damage social cohesion and global cooperation."</p><p>For those reasons, the pandemic demonstrates why infectious diseases hits the top of the impact list. Not only has COVID-19 led to widespread loss of life, it is holding back economic development in some of the poorest parts of the world, while amplifying wealth inequalities across the globe.</p><p>At the same time, there are concerns the fight against the pandemic is taking resources away from other critical health challenges - including a <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/09/charts-covid19-malnutrition-educaion-mental-health-children-world/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">disruption to measles vaccination programmes</a>.</p>
A new study explains how a chaotic region just outside a black hole's event horizon might provide a virtually endless supply of energy.
- In 1969, the physicist Roger Penrose first proposed a way in which it might be possible to extract energy from a black hole.
- A new study builds upon similar ideas to describe how chaotic magnetic activity in the ergosphere of a black hole may produce vast amounts of energy, which could potentially be harvested.
- The findings suggest that, in the very distant future, it may be possible for a civilization to survive by harnessing the energy of a black hole rather than a star.
The ergosphere<p>The ergosphere is a region just outside a black hole's event horizon, the boundary of a black hole beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape. But light and matter just outside the event horizon, in the ergosphere, would also be affected by the immense gravity of the black hole. Objects in this zone would spin in the same direction as the black hole at incredibly fast speeds, similar to objects floating around the center of a whirlpool.</p><p>The Penrose process states, in simple terms, that an object could enter the ergosphere and break into two pieces. One piece would head toward the event horizon, swallowed by the black hole. But if the other piece managed to escape the ergosphere, it could emerge with more energy than it entered with.</p><p>The movie "Interstellar" provides an example of the Penrose process. Facing a fuel shortage on a deep-space mission, the crew makes a last-ditch effort to return home by entering the ergosphere of a blackhole, ditching part of their spacecraft, and "slingshotting" away from the black hole with vast amounts of energy.</p><p>In a recent study published in the American Physical Society's <a href="https://journals.aps.org/prd/abstract/10.1103/PhysRevD.103.023014" target="_blank" style="">Physical Review D</a><em>, </em>physicists Luca Comisso and Felipe A. Asenjo used similar ideas to describe another way energy could be extracted from a black hole. The idea centers on the magnetic fields of black holes.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Black holes are commonly surrounded by a hot 'soup' of plasma particles that carry a magnetic field," Comisso, a research scientist at Columbia University and lead study author, told <a href="https://news.columbia.edu/energy-particles-magnetic-fields-black-holes" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Columbia News</a>.</p>
Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration<p>While there might not be immediate applications for the theory, it could help scientists better understand and observe black holes. On an abstract level, the findings may expand the limits of what scientists imagine is possible in deep space.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Thousands or millions of years from now, humanity might be able to survive around a black hole without harnessing energy from stars," Comisso said. "It is essentially a technological problem. If we look at the physics, there is nothing that prevents it."</p>
The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzU2NzY4My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTUwMzg0NX0.BTK3zVeXxoduyvXfsvp4QH40_9POsrgca_W5CQpjVtw/img.png?width=980" id="b6fb0" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2739ec50d9f9a3bd0058f937b6d447ac" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1512" data-height="2224" />
What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="7XqcvwWp" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="8506fcd195866131efb93525ae42dec4"> <div id="botr_7XqcvwWp_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/7XqcvwWp-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/7XqcvwWp-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div> <p>The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.</p><p>Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:</p><p>"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region." </p><p>The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its <a href="https://lkcnhm.nus.edu.sg/research/sjades2018/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow" style="">head</a>. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cthulhu" target="_blank" rel="dofollow">Great Old Ones</a>. <em></em></p>
A popular and longstanding wave of thought in psychology and psychotherapy is that diagnosis is not relevant for practitioners in those fields.