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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[…]

The thrill of acting is “the honor of being able to change a person’s life by what it is you do,” says Grey. Illuminating an idea through your role is a “higher calling.”

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.

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