It used to be that I never gave celebrities any credit at all. It was my presumption that they’d reached the lofty heights of adoration, not by talent, but by an unwitting physical charisma. They were stars in spite of themselves, and I always figured that all they had to do was just stand there and blankly absorb whatever our imagination projected upon them. They were unreflectively beautiful, and this always made me feel resentful and insecure, just like I did whenever high school goddess Mary Appleton ( swoon!) hopped into “dreamy” Jonathan Chapman’s stupid car, while I watched bitterly from my ten speed bike.
A perfect example of this was Alec Baldwin. A long time ago, well before “30 Rock,” I absolutely hated him. At the time, he was with Kim Basinger, who was widely acknowledged to be the sex queen of the universe in the early 90s. They were absurdly beautiful together, as perfect and uninteresting as if they had stepped off a wedding cake. Because of this, I loathed Baldwin, imagining all the abundance that he enjoyed to be a singular product of his smirking good looks. Just like Jonathan Fucking Chapman. And then I happened upon the very first episode (1994) of the Bravo series “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” in which Baldwin was interviewed.
Hosted by the singular James Lipton, the show began as a seminar for students of the Actors Studio Drama School. Austere in presentation, the show is little more than a one-on-one interview between Lipton and his guest. There’s an intimacy and surprising sincerity that permeates the interviews, making it wholly unique in the world of show business. Indeed, instead of actors blandly promoting their movies, we see them in an introspective mode where they focus on the craft of acting, rather than marketing. Baldwin, whom I was sure I detested, turned out to be utterly magnetic, and I was startled by the perception, thoughtfulness and even grace, that accompanied his remarks.
Equally astonishing is the host, Lipton, who counts fencing and equestrian amongst his pursuits. Famously parodied by Will Ferrell, he looks and sounds like a fictional creature you might find in Narnia. He has a slightly perverse look to him, sporting a lewd goatee that’s much darker than his thin hair, and it’s easy to imagine Lipton—now in his 70s—standing in front of the mirror, meticulously dabbing Just For Men into his beard and mustache. He brings an ornate and reverent gravitas to the show, and he brings a campy, if accidental, vibe to the proceedings that make it appealingly weird.
Now entering its 15th season, “Inside the Actor’s Studio” has aired over 200 episodes, and has featured just about every heavyweight actor you can imagine. However, there is a spattering of dross amongst the interviews, and occasionally you’ll stumble upon the cast from “Everybody Loves Raymond,” or worse, entities like Tom Cruise or Jennifer Lopez.
For the most part, I found that I had, as with Alec Baldwin, underestimated the intelligence and insight of the actors, but not in the case of Cruise and Lopez. They were lame. Cruise, a manic marketing machine, was completely unable to turn his self-promotion chip off, and simply smiled freakishly, shouting masculine answers to every question he was asked. Truly, he seemed kind of insane. Jennifer Lopez, as physical and non-verbal a presence as you could imagine, had absolutely nothing to say, coming across as a glittering doll.
Contrasting these vapid dolts, was Meryl Streep, whom I recently caught on an episode. In spite of an almost luminous intelligence, she came across as self-deprecating and empathetic. It was utterly impossible not to be charmed by her, and it was fascinating to listen to her speak.
It’s been said of her acting, that Steep shifts her soul slightly, thus changing the dynamic of the relationships around her, and listening to her describe her work, it actually seemed a credible, if grand description. She tells us that she learned more watching her dialect coaches speak than she did listening to their accents, explaining that the smallest of nuances are compelling and essential components in informing the character we see unfolding in the narrative before us.
She had all sorts of interesting things to say, from the sexism in Hollywood to acting taking you into spaces and terrors that you try to escape in your real life, and how this can be both therapeutic and destructive. As I listened, I thought of Heath Ledger, and how complex and difficult it must be to have to endure celebrity while trying to maintain a vibrant and authentic creative edge.
Famously, toward the end of the hour long show, Lipton asks the guest ten questions, called the Pivot questionnaire, in which whimsical questions like “What’s your favourite curse word?” are posed. The answers are always amusing, and bring a refreshing element of play, reminding us that art is fun.
While this is taking place, we get alternating shots of the interview, and the students’ reactions to the interview. The audience is young and hopeful. Attentive, they lean forward to the words being spoken, nodding their heads as something settles inside them. It’s inspiring; it’s lovely to watch this moment of evolution, when a person is learning, becoming more than they were just a moment before. I swear, you can almost see moments of illumination spark in their faces.
Each episode ends with a handful of questions being posed by some students. Soft music hums in the background, washing in a sentimental current as we head to the final, sage words of the actor who has made it, to the hundreds, to the thousands, waiting and watching who never will.
Streep, looking into the crowd as a student took the microphone, broke into a sincere smile, exclaiming, “You’re all so beautiful!” And she was right, they were. It wasn’t just their physical beauty and dewy presence, but the clarity and unsullied ambition in their eyes. They all so clearly, and happily, wanted to engage the world, and this is one of the magical things about being a student. You’re part of a large group of people who are all, at the same time, rising hopefully into this world, and somehow, “Inside the Actor’s Studio” manages to capture that potential, and project it back to us, reminding us of just how inspirational art, and life, can be.
Michael Murray is a freelance writer. For the last three and a half years he’s written a weekly column for the Ottawa Citizen about watching television. He presently lives in Toronto. You can find more of his musings on his blog, or check out his Facebook page.