The Difference Between Theater and Film

Theater has more of a “human touch,” but telling someone about a great live performance is like telling them about your dream.
  • Transcript


Question: What first drew you to the theater?

John Buffalo Mailer:  You know I grew up in an artistic family where everyone was doing something in one field of the arts or another.  I was I think 12 years old when I did my first acting at the Actor’s Studio and, you know, James Dean once said that the only reason to become and actor is because you have to.  I think that you know from a young age if that is a certain rush that you’re going to need to satisfy you and to make you feel fulfilled—and if you don’t then you shouldn’t do it.  It’s just too brutal of a business most of the time.  So I think that at the ripe old age of 12 I figured out, you know, I kind of like this thing.  I like talking to these people.

Question: How is working on a play different from working on a film?

John Buffalo Mailer:  Man, it’s apples and oranges.  You can’t really beat movies.  It’s a fun gig.  I mean it’s nice to have a trailer and makeup and you know an entire army that is basically all there for the same purpose, which is make the best film we can.  Yeah, when you’re on an Oliver Stone set everybody brings their A game.  Everybody brings their A game, from the top to the bottom and in between.  In terms of theater you know there is no way to really duplicate that rush you get when you take an audience that is live and right there in front of you through the journey of a great play and you go through these emotions so that they can experience them without having to go through them themselves.  It’s a certain kind of human compact that obviously you lose as soon as there is a screen and a camera there, so I think we’ll always have theater.  I think theater will always be a powerful force because we need that human touch, particularly as we spend more and more time with machines, cell phones, computers we start to lose our humanity.  I mean the price of our technology may very well end up being our humanity, so I think you got to have that balance.  Personally I try to do one for one if I can.  Do a movie, do a play, do a movie, do a play—while at the same time writing and being in that cycle.  Those two fields are very… Writing and acting are almost diametrically opposed in terms of being an actor it’s in your interest to be in shape and to be healthy and to have a strong voice and to be flexible.  As a writer you’re sitting in this position for hours on end.  You get up and you can’t put your shoulder down.  It’s not a healthy existence so to speak and it’s probably not healthy for the person that lives with you either, but you do the best you can.

Question: What theatrical work are you proudest of?

John Buffalo Mailer:  You know I’m probably most proud of the plays that I’ve written just because as the playwright, you know, you’re God.  You get to do everything.  You don’t make any money hardly at all, but you really get to kind of control the scene.  As a screenwriter you’re the towel boy in the whorehouse.   I mean you know you’re lucky if you’re invited to set.  It’s kind of like here is the blueprint, go and that’s you know there has been some debate as to whether or not a film should be by the director or by the screenwriter or by both.  The screenwriter lost out on that.  Directors win.  In theater it is absolutely the opposite, but you know I’m proud of all the…  Well, of most of the theater acting that I’ve done.  The thing is, to try to talk about a performance that will never be seen again, that was only lived by the people there, it’s kind of like telling somebody about your dream.  You know if they love you they’ll listen and smile, but they can’t really get it, so there is a certain infinite quality to film that is nice.  You do the work and you know it’s always going to be there.  The flip side is if you do bad work it’s always going to be there.

Question: What are your goals as an actor and playwright?

John Buffalo Mailer:  You know, I just I love telling stories and as long as I can make my living doing that in all the different mediums that I have been lucky enough to, that’s enough for me.  Really it’s, you know, there's different scales of stories.  Sometimes you want to tell one that 20, 30, 40, 50 million people will want to see and hear.  Sometimes you do one that you know 150 will want to see on one night.  As long as you’re telling the right story for the right audience and they’re getting something out of it it’s essentially the same feeling to me.  Obviously there is you know the economic necessity of paying your bills and how do you do that.   Ten years ago when I started out I was kind of told I was insane for trying to pursue multiple fields at once because in five years everyone who just did one would have five times the resume I would if I was lucky, but I took that gamble because I just my gut told me it was the right thing to do and you know as an actor there is so much downtime you want to fill it with something else and as a writer you know sometimes you’re doing a passion project, sometimes it’s a paid gig, sometimes there is nothing, so you can do a journalistic piece.  At this point I think the shift starting about 2008, a lot of factors as well I’m sure, but whatever the reasons, 2008 it felt as though the combination of distribution models starting to tighten and the publishing and film and music industries having to revolutionize themselves to catch up, and understand how this is going to work in the new millennium has made it a lot easier to pursue multi-platform careers.  It’s much easier to hire one person who can do three or four different things than one specialist in that field, which as I think about the college graduating classes and high school classes that are coming up now they’re in a unique position.  I mean they’re entering one of the toughest economies of all time.  At the same time if they’re willing to work really hard the ability they have to learn something much faster than we ever did before is there and it’s really a question of are you willing to put in the effort and go that extra mile. Because if you are I think there's actually more opportunities out there.

Recorded March 30, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen