I am re-printing an interview that I did with the estimable actor and coach, Corey Parker, with whom I had the pleasure of sharing the stage with at the beginnings of our careers at the Public Theater in NYC.
Corey’s blog is Corey Parker for the Actor
Corey: When did you know that you wanted to be an actor?
Jeffrey: I can’t remember not knowing that I wanted to be an actor, but I do know that where I come from – there was no theater. Even my high school had no theater department. There was a gym teacher, and anything that was remotely artistic was frowned upon. So I was a closeted actor. I remember going up to my room, closing the door, and acting out things. I decided to leave High School early and to do so, I had to go to summer school at Exeter. I auditioned for the play there, which was Spoon River Anthology, the first play I ever auditioned for. There were scores of other kids auditioning, and there were12 or 15 spots. I promised myself that if I got in this play, acting would be my life’s journey. I auditioned and I got a role, and from then on my focus was unwavering.
After attending Carnegie Mellon, I went to New York and continued taking classes, I felt like I still had a lot of catching up to do.
Corey: When you were starting out, what actors inspired you?
Jeffrey: This is going to be embarrassing. When I was a kid, I would shut my door and act out scenes from the Partridge Family in my room. I wasn’t taken to movies or to plays, so all I had to draw from was television. Once I committed to acting, it became the big three -Montgomery Clift, James Dean and Marlon Brando. I loved John Savage and Richard Gere (when he was doing character work like Mr. Goodbar and Days of Heaven). As a result, when I got to New York, I went to Montgomery Clift’s teacher, Mira Rostova and I went to Richard Gere’s teacher Wynn Handman. I did my due diligence of who did I like, and who did they study with?
Corey: What was your experience working with Mira Rostova?
Jeffrey: Mira never had more than a dozen people. Sometimes we would just be sitting in a circle in one of her wealthier client’s larger living rooms. We didn’t have to get up off our feet because what she was doing was assisting us in making it active, making the words active, taking actions. It was always doing, she came from the Max Reinhardt school, so she didn’t really spend a lot of time on back story, but with every line—what were you doing, what was the action?
And I worked with her privately, which was very interesting because normally when I worked with her privately I would book. We would sit there, and I would do my choice and she looked so pained and wounded, and then she would offer a suggestion, not harshly, but I so wanted to please her that those pained looks cut me to the quick. The suggestions she offered would always make me chuckle, because it was so right. And that trained my barometer because I think there is great humor in human truths. She was brilliant with Chekov for that reason, because she never went for the joke, but she would go for the human truth to the point where it would make you chuckle because it was so real.
Corey: Professional actors are not only very good and accomplished, but they make it look very easy on TV and in film. This can create a predicament for the young actor who watches TV and film and sees it look easy, never knowing about the years of training and experience that go into that. The result can be a young actor who believes it is easy, so easy that training is optional. Do you see this in Los Angeles?
Jeffrey: There’s a scourge of acting classes out here that basically preach that. That acting is easy, don’t sweat it, just learn your lines and stay loose. I think it’s partially responsible for a lot of the reality TV. People long for emotion and long to see conflict. TV can be blanded out because so many young actors going into it don’t have skills. But when you look at the leads of television shows, they tend to be really skilled actors. So they’re bringing all the colors of the rainbow, they’re making it look just as easy as the people who are just standing there, saying the words.
I think people who want to be famous, tend to not want to work hard. And I know in L.A. a lot of people want to be famous. They’re looking for the easy way to do so; unfortunately, there is no easy way. You and I have both in this business long enough to see the people who succeed at the highest level tend to be the hardest working ones. I have noticed that without exception. I went to college with Holly Hunter and I remember they were going to kick her out a couple of times just because of her accent, but she stayed in, and succeeded in such a big way, and I wasn’t surprised. Of course. Everyone kept saying “no,” and she kept going, “I’ll show you.”
I knew you before your career took off, (Jeff and Corey did a one-act at the Public Theater) and I remember the level of discipline that you engaged in. Even watching you take off was a fun thing. I never begrudged my friends who had success, because I have seen how hard they worked. It has happened that sometimes a student will get a level of success without putting the work in, and if they don’t continue to train and put the work in, it’s the last I hear of them.
Mira said, “Acting is a craft that demands such skill and yet can be done without any.”
Corey: The criteria of what the casting director wants changes and evolves over time, where is the casting director at today?
Jeffrey: I still think casting directors recognize talent. I still see actors making a big hit on stage and suddenly taking off. I think the casting directors look for talent. I think what has entered their paradigm now is Heat. One of my clients is Kelly Osborn (and Kim Kardashian), and they were having roles thrown at them because of the heat they have generated by television. By Heat, I even mean the number of twitter followers, the number of Facebook likes. People really notice that now. I’m about to work with two guys who did a bunch of funny YouTube videos and are now going on a bunch of media appearances for a Feature Film they just made, and they need to create a media persona. And they got so many hits, that they became wealthy and were given their first movie. Casting directors have their fingers on the pulse of Internet as well as stage, as well as TV.
As to what they want, the friends I have that are casting directors tend to have a sixth sense. They see the actor walk in the room and they can see where that actor is in correlation to the character they are auditioning for. I don’t know how they do it. Sometimes they send me someone who is just too green, and I’ll cut and paste a performance together. But casting directors can tell. They can tell. They’ll say the performance was good, but he is just too green. Being green consists of how they handle the inevitable trip-up during the audition, do they take it in stride as a professional– do they understand where to put their points of focus. Are they all over the place or do they know specifically who their speaking to and how does an actor hold the complexity of having inner conflict? And that just comes from…it’s like a professional athlete, you can teach someone to look like they know how to shoot a hoop, but you put them on the court, where it’s a combination of dribbling, defense, a hundred things. These are the things that you learn as an actor when you are in classes that you don’t get when you just prepare for the audition.
Corey: How can an actor take care of their body, mind and spirit while pursuing acting, going out on auditions and dealing with the rejection?
Laurence Olivier was once asked what was the most important training needed by the actor, and he said, “Going to the gym… because the actor needs stamina. “ Today in television, you also need the beauty of body, most of the time. For your mind, know your movies. Many directors today will reference a movie and the actor needs to know what he’s talking about.
Spiritually, how do you handle so much rejection and not let it affect your self worth? How do you know that there’s a bigger picture, so the small day-to-day slights don’t overwhelm you? How do you know that this is a divine calling and what we are doing is literally pointing society to where it’s going? Actors are on the front page of every magazine, people are listening—for whatever reason—to what actor’s are saying. About politics, about health, about fashion. We’re just at that moment in history where religious leaders have lost trust, political leaders have lost trust, and sports figures have lost trust. For whatever reason, actors right now tend to be the most trustworthy because many of them are devoting their fame to causes that are greater than themselves.
Corey: You’re an accomplished director. When you are casting, what are you looking for in the actor?
Jeffrey: I see everyone’s potential in the part. In the past, some of the performances that I’ve directed that have had the most acclaim—I hired actors that other people said to me, “you’ve got to use this person.” And I listen to them. Because I can see the potential in everyone.
The honest answer is the ones that I’ve had thrust upon me, there are these happy accidents. There is an actress who dropped out, the casting director got another actress whose work I don’t know and they say “Just trust me,” and I do. She won the ovation award. I’ve never cast a play solely on the actor’s talent. There are fourteen other elements involved, including references, knowing the person.
Corey: Can you talk about Stella Adler’s use of imagination as opposed to Strasberg’s use of affective memory?
Jeffrey: You hear people virulently defend one or the other, but you would never hear a carpenter say a hammer is better than a screwdriver. “Screwdrivers are phony baloney, it’s all about the hammer!” The truth is different roles call for different skills; it’s imperative that people have both skills. When I was doing “Alien Nation,” and playing an alien, the sensory work was not going to assist me, because I had nothing to draw from. So I was using purely imagination. There were other moments where I had to have huge emotional responses…my imagination got me through the first two takes, but by the third and fourth take, I was having to go into sensory recall. I think any teacher worth their salt will address both really important tools.
I think that Strasberg and Stella had more at stake than the tools, they had huge egos and such a need to be right, they had to make the other wrong. Both tools are important. Don’t you work both ways?
Corey: “For me technique is about problem solving. When a problem comes up, technique is there for that. If I’m working as an actor or a teacher, if a problem arises, I want to bring the technique that serves that person and that piece, it takes the actor into being ignited into the piece. When I was a kid, I always heard about the Adler camp hating Strasberg and the Meisner camp hating Strasberg and these three locked in this conflict.”
Jeffrey: I’m so glad you brought up his name, because, especially in film work, Meisner’s work is often the most important. He stressed listening, and listening is everything, in film specifically.
Some actors only want to work from themselves and refuse to use imagination. What is most important is, however they are working, do they enhance the material?
I do see the actors who only want to work from themselves, fucking with their psyches a lot, they are more unhappy actors. For whatever reason, happiness seems to be an alchemical element to performers that you watch. If there’s no joy in the work, I can be impressed by their fireworks, but I don’t feel elevated.
Corey: There is a point where an actor needs to take care of themselves as they pursue their career and become involved in this business or they risk self-destructing in various ways. Have you seen this and what are your thoughts on it?
Jeffrey: I feel that the self-destruct in New York is different from the self-destruct in L.A., although the overriding issue is the same. I have seen it happen, unfortunately quite a lot. It becomes very easy in L.A. to get caught up in the business. If you’re drawn to acting and you’re good, you’re drawn to the art of it. The business is what’s stressed out here, because people don’t know how to talk about the art. They do know the business because that’s very left-brain. So what happens is actors find themselves following their dream, following their bliss here, where all the rules don’t speak to them. They feel like a tsunami of foreign languages coming at them, they’re not speaking the same language and they feel drowned in the business.
People always say, “Well, it’s show business.” They always put the inflection on the second syllable. But it’s Show business. While actors are playing in the world of the business, we forget that we are perfomers, we are entertainers. If you have a sense of the business, great. If you don’t, hire a manager. Have your agent deal with it. But don’t start taking all these business courses on how to market yourself. I’ve never known any career worth its salt to happen because the actor knew how to market themselves. Maybe you’ll get a guest star part because you schmooze a lot, but you won’t build a career.
The actors I’ve worked with who are the best—and I would include you in this—are also the most sensitive and tender. That’s what makes them good. So when everything falls into place and their careers seemingly effortlessly take off, that’s amazing. But I think many have to suffer the slings and arrows a bit.
Here’s what L.A. affords you. L.A. has more yoga classes, natural resources, beaches, spiritually awakened beings, Topanga Canyon, Self Realization Fellowship. World class spiritually enlightened individuals. Marianne Williamson lectures once a week here. If you look for it, it is here. On the other side of the scale, because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, this town has some of the most shallow individuals you will ever meet in your life. People who make you think that they’re your friends, and then when you need a friend, they’re nowhere to be seen.
We’re in the business of illusion, where illusion by it’s very nature is not a business…This town has an equal balance enlightenment and darkness. Darkness is always flashier and gets better press.
It’s the actor having the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, L.A. is that… on steroids. You have to constantly choose health. The night before you have the big audition is the night that you’ll be invited to the really important party. I mean, do we want to eat kale or do we want to eat chocolate mousse? It’s very clear the more self-honoring choices you make, the more your spirit feels relieved, ‘ahhh, I’m being taken care of.’ I think acting is the greatest of spiritual journeys. I think it’s a constant evolutionary process of forgiving, self-honoring, and the desire to be heard, to be seen. I think it’s every spiritual practice put into practice. It is a daily ritual. I mean, I have rituals built into my week, to my day, and it’s not because I enjoy rituals or because I’m a disciplined person. In order to survive, there are certain things I must do. And it is not only to survive but in order to be of service to others. I’m honoring myself because I’m honoring the people who trust me with their careers. I take that very seriously. Do I meditate twice a day because I know it’s going to help me? Most days I do, but there are times when I say, “I’m teaching today, I’m coaching today, I’ve got to be 100%.”
Corey: You have a Masters Degree in spiritual psychology, with an emphasis on consciousness, health and healing. Would you talk about that work in relation to the actor?
Jeffrey: I did that because my actors were starting to go very deep, sometimes into altered states. I would lead someone to the very precipice, and then I would get scared. Because I didn’t feel like I had the knowledge or tools to safely land them on the other side. I got this degree and now I feel capable of going anywhere with people. The thing I wasn’t expecting was what it did for me. It placed me in the center of my truth to a much greater degree. For example, last night there was an actress in class, her scene partner wasn’t there, but it’s important to me that people work every week. She was having an issue with feeling stuck. When you’re feeling stuck, you’re stuck in you’re work, you’re stuck in your career, you’re stuck in your life. Using the skills and psychological tools;I was able to assist her, to assist herself, in taking dominion over the stuckness and choosing to move through it. Now, is that an acting class thing? Well, it affects her acting career. Is it a psychological thing? Absolutely. Does it have a place in the classroom? I think you treat the person to treat the art. I don’t think you separate them.
So, the degree has given me skills in neuro-linguistic programming, gestalt work, which I use for character interviews, the work of Fritz Perls I use to great effect in doing character interviews, visualizations, meditation, hypnosis. There are lots of tools that I can use, having gone through this process. But again, if you look at Strasberg, he was highly versed in Fruedian psychology. All of his work is almost pure Fruedian. We’ve had so many wonderful technologies since then, why not use them? It’s a holistic approach to the actor, as you were saying…body, mind, and spirit.
Corey: When an actor looks for a teacher, what should he or she look for? What are the red flags of a bad teacher? By bad I mean ignorant, false, potentially harmful.
Jeffrey: My experience of the bad teachers are the ones who promise you everything while saying it’s going to be easy. The teachers who promise to make you a star, without any effort on your part really. The Zen teachers, I call them, ’just let go, let God, just trust the moment.’ Is this stuff important? Absolutely, but it’s a fraction of the equation. So those are the teachers who I have found the most dangerous. Being in the moment is a fraction. Sensory work is a fraction. Listening is a fraction. Imagination is a fraction, self-esteem is a fraction. I think most great teachers came out of, at one point, wanting to be an actor. They know the process, they know and they tried it. Of the two biggest and most popular teachers that are not good, one of them—the biggest part they had was the chorus in Carousel.
Here’s the other thing when I’m looking for an acting teacher. I’ve always felt that when I’m in the presence of an acting teacher, a sense of being home. Don’t confuse the level of work with the teacher, because there are teachers who are very popular, and so ICM and William Morris send their great actors to this teacher. The work in the class may be good because these are great actors, not necessarily because of this teacher. Make sure it’s the teacher that offers you something. You should have a realization per class. Don’t you think?
Corey: “Yeah, I think there is an unfolding, an opening up. If you make yourself available to the moment, you’re going to suddenly realize, through the need to be present in the work, you suddenly realize some of the places where you are not being present in your life as a civilian. And that realization is the key, because without that realization, and the door opening to your artistry, you remain a civilian, the art is not awakened in you.
Jeffrey: Exactly. I think there is something to be said for getting up and working every week. There are plenty of classes where teachers have 70 students, so the actors don’t even get up to work once a month. I mean, definitely you can get an awful lot from watching people act. You can get a lot from watching great tennis players if you’re a tennis player. Eventually, you have to pick up the racquet and train your body. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t get up, if not every week, then every other week. What you are doing when you get up is working on your art, not the business.
You have worked with fortune 500 entertainment companies. Would you talk about this work?
Only because it’s surprisingly brought me such joy, in watching people who have attained the highest levels in their industry—the business part of show business—and they have fear about standing to speak in front of a hundred or a thousand people. And these are presidents of a network or a studio. I bring to them the very skills that I work with my actors on –moving through fear, running energy. And this can seem kind of ‘woo woo” to people who have never worked like this, but I enjoy watching them open up to this work. We recognize what brought them into entertainment in the first place, it may have been very important to them growing up. We can connect to that child place in them, and that allows them to then emotionally connect to what they are talking about, instead of just giving facts and figures. Even when they are giving a presentation, no one really cares about information, what people care about is a connection with the speaker. And when the speaker is connected, they reach people, they engender trust or inspire them or even assuage them, let them know that this is a challenging time but we’ll pull through it. So I’m dealing with intention, with connection, relaxation, and it’s stuff we have been doing as actors all along.
Corey: Would you talk about “running energy?”
Jeffrey: I liken it to a light bulb. Let’s say an actor or an executive is used to running 60 to 90 watts. You’re comfortable with this and it’s all you usually need to light. But if you’re put in front of a thousand people, or two thousand people, or a camera crew, suddenly you need to shine a little bit brighter, because you’re the focus of attention. You’ve got to be the focal point. Our bodies seemingly and brilliantly know what to do. It starts releasing chemicals. The adrenals start kicking in, breathing becomes affected, you’re running more electricity. Most people want to stop that, because it’s scary. It doesn’t feel right to them. As opposed to being a three way light bulb that can now run 120watts or 240 watts, they take that current and mistakenly try to stop it. And that blocks the energy, and that causes everything from -shaking and trembling, heart palpitations, to complete and total shut down. Part of running energy is realizing that it is a circuitry. It’s not enough to shine at 240watts, you’ve got to emit light, and give and receive the current. It’s sharing that energy, sharing that hyper state wattage and being comfortable with it. It’s a loosening around the energy.
Corey: “That’s something that we see with the most capable actors, that energy just pouring out of them in performance or in front of the cameras. It’s astounding to see a human being do that.”
Absolutely. I once heard that the Latin root of the word “charisma” means “emitting light”.
When you’re in the presence of someone who knows how to emit that light, you can’t take your eyes off them. And I do think that that can be developed and trained.