The Thrill of the “High-Wire” Interview
James Lipton is an American writer, composer, actor, and the founding Dean Emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School in New York City. He is the executive producer, writer, and host of the Bravo cable television series "Inside the Actors Studio," which debuted in 1994. His credits as an actor include a ten-year role as Dr. Dick Grant on CBS's "Guiding Light" and recurring guest appearances as Warden Stefan Gentles on Fox's "Arrested Development." Lipton is also a licensed pilot and a member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.
Question: How do you prepare for interviews?
James Lipton: With great care. That happened also by happenstance. In 1994, I had by then, at the urging of Norman Mailer and his wife Norris Church and others; I had gone over to the Actors Studio to see what they were doing. I had been trained by Stella, it was a different world, but I went over there. And Norman said, “You’ve got to come over, we’re doing good work. We’re doing interesting work.” I went over and saw what they were doing and I liked it a lot. And I became involved in the studio and the work and began to work there and ultimately became a member, and very deeply involved in the work at the studio. By this time, Strasberg had long since passed away. I never got to meet him, I regret to say. I was so involved in the work I eventually became a member of the board of the Actors Studio. And just before I became a member of the board, I became aware, as we all did, that in those parlous times, 1994, for cultural institutions, that the Studio, which had never been a school, never charged a tuition, which had never been a club, that charged membership fees, that had been living hand to mouth since 1947, that like any other cultural institution, it was impoverished. And one night after we had been discussing it and how the Studio could possibly survive under these circumstances, I woke up the next morning and had an idea. It was crystal clear in detail. It was to create a school. For the first time, a degree-granting school in a university, under the aegis of The Actors Studio with all the core courses to be taught by life members of the Actors Studio.
We created the program, the Actor’s Theater Drama School and in the fall of 1994, we opened our doors to the public. Within three years, we were the largest graduate drama school in America. And today, of course, we are at Pace University, and we are bigger and better than ever.
So here we were, it was 1994, September, we opened our doors. We were accredited, Masters Degree Program, three year NFA. And I said to myself – and they said to me, by the way, “This was your idea Jim, you’ve led the group that created the curriculum” – others participated, Ellen Burstyn, Bob Blanco, and Lee Grant, and Carolyn Glenn, and Norman Mailer, Paul Newman. And they said, “Look, this is your idea, you can’t walk away from it, not you’ve got to start it.” I said, “I’m finishing the book of lyrics to my third musical.” They said, “You’ve got to at least get it started.” I said, “Okay. I’ll do it for a year.” I did it for 10 years and became its founding Dean because I fell so in love with it. But, I was now – I had this Master’s Degree program. And I had people to teach all year long, I had people who would come and do a six-week workshop, and then I thought, I’ve got to attract to us our colleagues, members of The Studio, colleagues that we worked with outside the studio, in films and theater. I’ve got to bring them there for one night. They can only give me one night of their lives. Okay. I wrote a letter. Give me one night of your life. Teach our students, and I’ll conduct this seminar. And I got a response from Paul Newman, Dennis Hopper, Alec Baldwin, Sally Fields, and I sent a letter back into the professional community from which I had come saying that these people are liable to say something that is worth preserving. That means television cameras. We can’t afford them. Anybody interested? And Bravo, the Bravo network, which was then very small, took this existential leap with us. And so it began.
Anyway, there we were and I had this school now and we had this – I had this Monday evenings I had this seminar, and there were television cameras. I made two fateful decisions. One, we’re a school. We will always be a school. This will always be a class. Therefore, we are not interested in gossip, we’re interested in craft. We will be about craft. Which is not exactly a goldmine in television; and nevertheless, it will be about craft. And second, there will be no pre-interview. I’d been on all the television programs as an actor, as a writer, as a director, as a producer. I’d been on everybody else’s show and there was always a preinterview. Somebody would come with a tape recorder and you’d talk for three or four hours, and they’d take it back and it would be transcribed, and it would be given to the writers, those many writers you see on all those shows, Larry King, Letterman, Leno, etc. And then they choose the answers that will be most evocative on their show. And then they write the questions that will evoke them and they give them to the host. Well, they do five shows a week, so they have to do it that way. I couldn’t do it. They’re much smarter than I am, much cleverer. But no, I said there was going to be no pre-interview.
What did that mean? I had to do the homework. No one else. It takes me two weeks to prepare for each guest. I work seven days a week and I work about 12 hours a day, from the beginning of September to about the end of May; the school year. I take two days off, Christmas and New Year’s, Thanksgiving sometimes – two and a half. And the result is that I bonded myself to my desk. I “grappled myself to it with hoops of steel,” to quote the Bard. And I do that homework myself. I have a mass of raw material which is provided to me by a graduate of our school, Jeremy ****, which gives me everything that exists on this particular person. And then I have two weeks in which to shape it and turn it into a narrative, which is what our show is intended to be; a beginning, a middle, and an end, with themes that occur and reoccur. And then I put them on my PowerPoint in my computer and I put them on blue cards with questions that will evoke the answers, hopefully, that I have found in their personal and professional histories. And there are about 400 or 500 of those cards for each person.
You asked about my preparation, and that’s my preparation, and it all began with the decision that there would be no pre-interview. The guests and I have talked about it often. It’s as if it were a circus tent with a rope ladder on one end, a rope ladder on the other, I go up one rope ladder, the guest goes up the other, and we meet on a high wire with no net for four to five hours. That’s how long they’re with me on our stage because it’s a class. I edit it out to an hour, occasionally for two hours for a two-hour special, but that – we’re up there. And there’s no net because the guest doesn’t know what’s coming next. And I have no guarantee that they’ll give me the answer that I think I’m going to find from the research that I’ve done and that’s on my card.
James Lipton sometimes seems to know more about his famous guests than they do. How does he prepare for each interview?
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