Leigh Foster interviews Terry Knickerbocker on his Podcast "On Action" The Pursuit of Excellence
Leigh: I’m Leigh Foster. You are listening to Action, the no bullshit podcast dedicated to the pursuit of acting excellence. Enjoy this episode.
Leigh: All right, on this episode my guest is actor, director, producer and coach, Terry Knickerbocker. Terry has coached some incredible talent over the past 30 years, including Sam Rockwell, Boyd Holbrook, Natasha Lyonne, Leslie Bibb, Emmy Rossum, John Leguizamo, and many, many more. Recently he’s been working on the upcoming FX show, the biopic of Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, Fosse/Verdon, staring Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams. He also coached Sam on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
Leigh: Terry is a graduate of the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU, where he continues to be a member of the core faculty. Terry trained as an actor and a teacher with the renowned William Esper, and went on to teach at the William Esper Studio for 25 years. In 2015, he founded the Terry Knickerbocker Studio, a two-year Meisner conservatory in Brooklyn, New York. Terry, welcome to the show.
Terry: Thank you so much, Leigh. I’m honored and appreciate you making the time. It’s great.
Leigh: First of all, I’d like to express my condolences for the passing of William Esper.
Terry: Yeah. I’m still reeling for that. He died last Saturday at the end of January, and he was 86, so he had a good long time with all of us, but I could have used many more years of him, and he stays with me. I’m sad, but I’m mostly filled with a profound sense of gratitude for all the lessons that continue to be part of my everyday life. Everything I do in the classroom, everything I do when I coach actors, how I feel about everything, so much comes from the fullness of Bill’s wisdom, and everything he imparted to me. We lost a legend, and he leaves behind his work in the thousands of actors that he trained over the years.
Leigh: I would like to start this interview by having you explain the basics of Meisner training. Many people who listen to this show are in the beginning stages of their acting career, and may not be entirely familiar. They’ve probably all heard of it, but they don’t quite know what it is. Could you just give the basics of it?
Terry: Sure. I have a question, Leigh. Is swearing allowed?
Leigh: Fuck, shit, ass.
Terry: Okay, great. I’ll say that ’cause there’s a Meisner joke. First of all, I’m a graduate of NYU, and I didn’t have any Meisner training when I was there. They’ve since added it, but it wasn’t there when I was a student there. At the end of the day, nobody cares where you trained or what method you train, ’cause all the great acting methods, Lee Strasberg, Stella Adler, Grotowski, Uta Hagen, Meisner, Eric Morris, they all lead to the same thing, hopefully the same mountain top, which is really good acting. No one says to someone, “You know what, I want to go see a movie with some good Meisner actors.” Actually, it doesn’t matter.
Terry: I came to the work because after graduating from NYU, I found that I actually had very hit or miss work, because that training I got was very much based in scene study, which is a way so many acting techniques start. My freshman year at NYU, I was doing Streetcar Named Desire. That to me would be like starting piano lessons with a Chopin Concerto, or ballet lessons with Swan Lake. It makes no sense. But I didn’t know that ’cause that’s just what we were doing.
Terry: I had the opportunity to work backstage on a show with a guy who happened to be a Meisner actor, but I just know he was amazing. He was consistent. Every show he did, it was like watching an Olympic gymnast, just sticking it on every single vault, every single thing they did. I said, “Wow, man. I want to do that. I want to be that consistent.” He told me about his teacher who was Bill Esper.
Terry: After graduating from NYU, like a year later, graduated in ’81, 1983 I started training with Bill. The basics of Meisner training toy with idea that acting is doing, that the essence of acting is doing, and doing truthfully under imaginary circumstances. It’s not about feeling, it’s not about going onstage to have emotion, it’s going onstage to do truthfully, whether that’s a physical action like tying your shoes, or whether that’s an interpersonal action, like what I’m doing now, which is explaining to you, or whether that’s an interaction, like trying to remember where I parked my car in the parking lot. That if you really do what the character’s doing, and you understand who the character is, you are well on your way to starting to create a performance.
Terry: It starts, and I’ll tell you the reason I asked about the swearing in a second. It starts with a really basic thing called the repetition exercise. Now Meisner, in addition to being a wonderful man of the theater, and a member of the Group Theatre, along with Strasberg, and Clifford Odets, and Stella Adler, and all the giants who are our artistic ancestors, was also a pianist. He understood the value of scales. That a pianist, a guitarist, a violinist needs to do scales so much that it stops being something they think about and becomes a habit, something in their muscle memory.
Terry: He was trying to figure out what is the equivalent of scales for actors. First thing, well we’ve got to get rid of the text, because the text can often be very masking. He came up with this little baby exercise which does a couple things. It starts out with two people, and one person faces the other and notices something that interests them, that exists in that person. I look at you in our little Skype screen, and I see you have a beard. I might say, “You have a beard.” Then you’d say back to me, “I have a beard.” I’d say back to you, “You have a beard.” We’d go back and forth from that, and that little simple thing, which doesn’t seem very profound, as Bill Esper used to say, it’s not Chekhov, but it’s the seed of Chekhov because the oak tree sleeps in the acorn.
Terry: This is not sophisticated, but it does a lot of things really well. First of all, it gets your attention off yourself. That’s huge, because the self- conscious actor is not a free actor. By putting my attention on the other person, I start to free myself up to be spontaneous. The rhythm of it is like ping-pong, and ping-pong is a game of impulses. It’s not like Chess, where you think about each move. By having that bouncy ping-pong game of impulses where I’m putting my attention on you, and then you’re giving me something back, it doesn’t stay static, it starts to grow, and the little things might start to change.
Terry: Maybe you’ll say, “Okay, I have a beard.” You’ll add the word “okay”. I might say, “Whoa, where’s the attitude?” By putting my attention on really listening, really doing that, doing truthfully that, not pretending to listen, but I’m really listening to you, it starts to create an incredible intimacy, which is what actors do. They show up on set, they say, “Hi, I’m Bob.” “Okay, I’m Sally.” “Okay, let’s do this fight scene,” or, “Let’s do this love scene.” I’ve never met you before, but like basketball players who show up and start banging with each other, we’re at it in a very intimate contact oriented way.
Terry: The other thing we’re doing is we’re really answering. We’re answering truthfully. We’re not into convention here, we’re into what’s really happening. What you’re doing to me right now in this moment. It also sets up the ability to work from unanticipated moment to unanticipated moment.
Terry: That’s the beginning of it. Then we start to get into imaginary circumstances where we take an object, and we figure out something we could do with that object that is difficult for us. Let’s say maybe it’s mug that I broke, and in the imaginary world I have to fix it. Why? Because it’s worth something as part of a set. It’s worth $30. I say, “Why would I need $30? What’s an imaginary reason that turns me on?” It can’t be to pay my electric bill, because that’s practical. But maybe there’s a new Japanese restaurant that I’d love to go to, or maybe there is this girl that’s gonna be at a party, and I have to be there because I’m smitten with her, or maybe there is some half-priced tickets to a new play that I’d love to go to. I start to get connected to a discover in the training, what gets me going as an actor through the use of imagination, which was a later phase of Stanislavski’s work.
Terry: When he first came to America, he was doing what’s still called Method acting, where your history was important. What happened to you when you were seven that was dramatic or exciting? Then Stella Adler went over to France after he left America and said, “Hey, Konstantin Stanislavski, we’re doing that emotional memory stuff of yours.” He says, “Oh, I’ve moved on. Now I’m interested in the imagination. It’s much more expansive.” Meisner was a devotee of that.
Terry: We’re less interested in what did happen, and more on what could happen. Which means that you have a lot of possibilities ’cause let’s say you had a great childhood. How you gonna play someone who had a terrible childhood? Or let’s say you had a terrible childhood, how you gonna play someone who had a great childhood? Let’s say you’re poor? How you gonna play someone who’s rich? Etc.
Terry: Through all this what could be stuff, we start to play with that, like, “Wow, if there was this girl that I was smitten with, yeah I’d want to fix that cup.” Then we start to get connected to imaginary circumstances because a kind of alchemy that’s really import … That’s basically what acting is. I take this script that was not written for me, and I turn it into something that seems like it was written for me, as if I was the only person born to play this part, by making it mine.
Terry: Then we start to work with some scenes. In the scene work, we have this idea in the beginning that any line could come out any way. We get a way from obvious choices or line acting. If a line is something like, “I hate your guts,” we don’t have the idea that that’s an angry line. We have the idea that that line will come out off whatever impulse my partner sends to me. It could be funny, it could be silly, it could be embarrassing, and it could also be angry. But we don’t predetermine that in the beginning. We have a very flexible relationship to text, and we learn how to improvise with the text.
Terry: In the whole first year, it’s a two year training, is all about really discovering through lots of imaginary circumstances and scene work, what gets you going, and how to improvise very freely, and how to access all the different colors that live inside you, authentically. In the second year, Meisner used to say that the first year was about putting money in the bank, and the second year was about learning to spend it wisely.
Terry: The second year is all about character work. We take all those colors that you’ve unearthed about yourself, and we start to use them in good material, good scenes, where we really start to become responsible to the material. Then we don’t have this idea that any line can come out any way, ’cause you can’t be in a Broadway show and have every night it be a different show. It should be the same every night, and then a little bit different because your partner’s different, and the audience is different, so there’s that sense of improvisation and spontaneity, but the moments are the moments, and you’ve decided that already guided by the playwright and also by yourself as an artist.
Terry: That’s two years of work in about five minutes. You can ask me anything you want about that, but that’s what it’s about, really doing. One of the things Meisner actors are really good at is film and TV work because they stay fresh in every take, and they know how to really be in contact with whoever their partner is. That’s a great thing.
Leigh: That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense to me. Yeah, ’cause you’re doing essentially the same take, and the same lines over and over, and over again.
Terry: You are, but you’re also being smart about what you’re doing in the wide shot, and what you’re doing in the closeup, and you’re also making sure that even though it’s the same thing, you’re feeling playful, and you’re feeling open, and you don’t have this rigid locked in idea of how it has to go. If your partner all of a sudden raises their eyebrow because you’re keyed into listening, you’re gonna go, “Whoa, what the hell was that?” The joke, which has to do with swearing in this repetition exercise, ’cause in the beginning people get very angry in the work.
Terry: Meisner wanted the actor to come to the life, and for him where there was struggle there was life. If you’re doing this really hard thing, and you really want to do it, that’s gonna set up a frustration, and upset, and friction in you, then you bring in a partner and they’re working off you, and they say, “You look very busy.” “I look very busy I am very busy.” Life is going on. The joke is, “And you’re wearing a tie.” “I’m wearing a tie. Fuck you.” Because sometimes an exercise just evolves to fuck you, fuck you. That’s the cliché about Meisner. But if that happens, it happens organically.
Leigh: I want to read a quote from one of your students, Sam Rockwell. He says, “I first took an acting class from Terry Knickerbocker more than 25 years ago. Since then, I’ve worked with him on every film and stage role I’ve ever done. Nobody is better at what he does. Terry is incredibly intuitive and full of ideas that are usually outside the box. His sense of what is truthful is like a laser. I depend on him. He’s invaluable to me and I don’t know what I would do without him.”
Leigh: When I read this, something jumped out to me which was usually outside the box. I was hoping you could talk about the importance of that, your thoughts on outside the box.
Terry: Sure. You know that expression, “On the nose,” or, “A cliché choice,” and I would say that you’re only as good as an actor as your ideas. You think about Johnny Depp when he’s playing Jack Sparrow, and the story that he got the idea for that character, and that’s a Disney movie, from Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. This loose, half drunk, reeling guys, smoking a cigarette, who’s not a straight ahead pirate. He’s kind of weird, and he’s kind of out of it, and he’s kind of playful. That’s an idea. That comes from the actor.
Terry: Or when Lee J. Cobb was playing the original Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman. He was a method actor, and method acting, among other things, pays a lot of attention to animal work. Very typical for a method actor to go to the zoo looking for the animal. They don’t know what the animal is, and they want to observe the animal. Of course, you’re not gonna see the literal animal up there, but they’re gonna take something of the animal’s behavior and integrate it in a human way. Lee J. Cobb was there all day, at the Central Park Zoo here in New York City, and he found this tired old elephant that for him just embodied the end of the line that happened for Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s classic play. He started to play with that, and bring it in, and that was the part. That’s an idea, that’s outside the box, that comes from the actor’s imagination because we’re also artists. ‘Cause otherwise, why do repertoire?
Terry: Why does a pianist play a Bach piece? It’s already been done. You can get 500 recordings of it. The only reason is ’cause they think they have something to offer. Edward Albee, who wrote “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?“, and “The Goat“, and so many wonderful plays, “Zoo Story“, he could be a very mean fellow. At a rehearsal once, he said to an actor who read a scene of his, he said, “Well, you have just successfully read all my words. What’s your contribution?”
Terry: Outside the box is really an invitation to what’s your idea for this? Why did Philip Seymour Hoffman do Death of a Salesman? It had already been done. Not only by Lee J. Cobb, but also Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy. He did it because as an artist, which Phil Hoffman was a consummate artist, and he did that part certainly not for the money, but because he had a passionate need to express something in his soul that had to do with his idea for the part.
Terry: We get playful, Sam and I, to go back to Sam. When he did The Way, Way Back, which is a funny movie, at one point I said, “I don’t know, what would it be like if you sang that thing?” He said, “You mean like as an exercise, Terry?” And I said, “No really, when they say action, sing it.” He sang the line, and it’s in the movie, and it’s fine. When he did Three Billboards, we knew that that character’s achilles heel was his mother. He’s a tough cop who’s really mama’s boy. He’s in the scene with Frances McDormand, who was needling him about his mother, and I said, “What would happen if you stuttered every time you said her name?” He said, “My ma-ma-ma-mama.” That’s in the movie.
Terry: It could come from anywhere. It could be a walk, that you walk like a robot. It really has to do with your imagination, that the worst thing an actor can do is look at a scene and think, “Okay, I get what this scene’s about,” and then do that. ‘Cause what’s your contribution? By the way, most film and television writing is pretty bad. It’s rare that we get great words to say the way we do with great playwrights. It’s very plot oriented. You often, as an actor, have to turn shit into gold, and the only way to make that happen is with your ideas.
Terry: I was working Sam this Saturday on this Fosse/Verdon thing, which is a marathon. It’s eight episodes, eight one-hour plus episodes. Episode 5, Bob Fosse has gotten out of the hospital, he’s trying to make it back, he’s won the Oscar, he’s won the Tony, he’s won the Emmy, and he’s also a drug addict, and a sex addict, and he’s been in the hospital, in the loony bin. He’s trying to get stuff back. He’s broken up with Gwen Verdon and he’s now dating, Ann Reinking, who is another dancer. Gwen Verdon comes with her new boyfriend to a house that Bob rents to get things going. He’s about to start on the movie Lenny, about Lenny Bruce with Dustin Hoffman because he has a need to prove himself, that he’s not just a musical comedy choreographer kind of guy, he’s not just dance, he’s a serious actor. By the way, Fosse studied with Meisner, which is interesting.
Terry: There’s a scene where Sam and Gwen have sex at the house. She’s there with her boyfriend, he’s there with his girlfriend, and at late at night they have sex in the living room. The next morning, Sam, Bob Fosse, is in bed with Ann Reinking. He finds out that she has been talking to Paddy Chayefsky about his health, basically trying to keep him from doing projects. I said, “Think of it like … Be very friendly, but as if it’s not nice to fool Bob. It has a friendly menace,” ’cause it was really a nothing scene on page, but it all of a sudden, it gave him something like, “You know, I heard you were talking to Paddy. Now that’s okay. That’s okay that you did that. Just uh …” There was this mafiosa quality to it right now, which is not on the page at all, but it’s something that excites same to play with.
Terry: When we get together, it’s like a playground. Those are the best actors is when like, “I know how it’s supposed to go. What’s fun? What’s interesting? What gets my blood? Ooh, let’s try it that way.”
Leigh: I realized recently that I did far, far better in auditions and booked many more things when I was proud of my work, when I was proud of the choices that I had made before going into the room. I often went into the room thinking, “This is not what they want, but this is what I want to do,” and inevitably those are the ones that you book.
Leigh: I want to ask you a question. You talked about you’re only as good as your ideas. Do you think that when casting directors talk about “Come in with a strong choice,” which every actor on earth has heard forever and always, that’s really what they’re talking about, right?
Terry: I think that’s what they’re talking about. I think that they are in a bit of a bind because they have to sell their idea to network or whoever, and they’re gonna look at you, how many Instagram followers you have, and chemistry, and all that other stuff. But you will excite a casting director when you do something that is valid, but not necessarily what the other 40 people before you were doing. It’s not to be different for the sake of being different, but it’s not just a fall for the obvious choice, say, “Okay, here’s the obvious choice. I can do that. What else can I do?”
Terry: Things that the Meisner training does that sets you up for that is in the second year we work on nursery rhymes, like Little Jack Horner, or Georgie Porgie pudding and pie, or Hickory Dickory Dock. Now those are nonsense text which you would never think of as being dramatic, and the assignment is, out of those eight lines, create something that’s valid acting and have three different equally valid interpretations. A: it teaches you how to create moments, but also have to have other ideas, ’cause nothing you make is precious. You can come in with this great idea, an entrance, a walk, a moment, but a director says, “That’s okay, but it’s not what we’re looking for.” The actor cannot get their feelings hurt. Just put that back in the vault, you’ll use it for something else, and be flexible. Say, “Okay, well how about this? How about that?”
Terry: But yes, come in with choices, come in with your ideas, and hopefully when you say proud of your work, I think you’re also saying that you like it. That you’re pleased with it. Not just proud, but I get turned on, I love this moment, I love this thing, I love what I do with this line, I love how I’m treating this relationship.
Leigh: I’m excited by it.
Terry: I’m excited by it. I made something and I love it. That energy, and enthusiasm, and groundedness reads in a room. They go, “Okay, here’s someone who knows what they’re doing. Even if they’re not right for the part, I’m gonna keep them in my file,” because you’re not really auditioning for the part, as they say, your audition for the next part. Chances are you won’t get the part. If 200 people are auditioning for a part, you have 0.5% chance of getting it, but you’ll make an impression.
Terry: That happened with Sam. I talk about Sam so much because we’ve done everything together, and he was the best man at my wedding, and we’re really good friends. But I also love his work, and I love collaborating with him. We have an ease and a flow. He auditioned for Duncan Jones, who was David Bowie’s son for a project and didn’t get it. Well, he moved on, but Duncan Jones didn’t. He was so impressed with Sam that he wrote Moon, which is an amazing movie if people haven’t seen it, they have to see it ’cause it’s a great acting thing. Sam basically plays a guy plus three clones of himself, so he’s got all these versions of the same guy, an astronaut named Sam Bell. He wrote that part for Sam, and it’s basically a one-person movie.
Terry: Kevin Spacey plays a robot, he’s got a voice. There’s another actress who plays his wife on video, but basically it’s Sam in almost every single thing, out in space because of something he did two years earlier in a part he didn’t get.
Leigh: Speaking of Sam, one of the listener questions that I have is from a long-time listener and friend of mine, Nelson Ritthaler. This came in last minute. I think that it’s probably something that’s gonna be very interesting for everyone listening. We don’t often get a whole lot of insight into what it is like to be someone at the level that Sam Rockwell is at. He’s won all sorts of awards. Here is what Nelson asks, he says, “Please ask him what the start to finish process of working with someone like Sam Rockwell is on a project. Script analysis, character development, etc. As soon as Sam signs onto a project and gets the script, what happens first? And then so on, and so on.”
Leigh: I’m gonna also preface that by saying, when someone’s at that level, are they auditioning and getting straight offers?
Terry: It’s 95% offers at this point. He says “no” to most things and has to be really in love with the idea of something, either because of the script, or because who’s in it, or because who’s directing it. There’s got to be something that really excites him, I think. He would say that your greatest power that you have as an actor is to say “no”. But I would say even before he takes something sometimes, many a times Sam has sent me a script he’s been offered saying, “I’m not sure about this. What do you think?” That happened with “Vice“, the Dick Cheney, Adam McKay thing that he plays George Bush in. He loves Adam McKay, he’s a great director, and obviously Christian Bale would be fun to work on, and George Bush, but we wanted to make sure that he wasn’t just a goof show.
Terry: I didn’t even get the whole script ’cause they really have that script under wraps, but I did get Sam’s scenes. We talked it through, and there’s definitely some scripts that … Obviously he did it, and he’s got another Oscar nomination for that. It’s a fun part, but there are other scripts he sent me, “What do you think?” There are at least a couple I’ve said, “Do not work on that. It’s a horrible script. It’s an offensive script.” Or he’ll say, “Do you think I can score with this?” Meaning, is there something I haven’t done before, something that’s rich for me? There’s that.
Terry: His process, he’s usually well on the way to the process when we start talking. Then we’ll just sit down. Sometime we’ll watch movies, we’ll watch videos. We have to get into the world of the piece, and of the character. He was listening to the Bob Fosse biography on tape, he was watching Bob Fosse interviews, and he was watching him dance, and he was reading interviews with Gwen Verdon, really just getting into the world of the piece, and then we start to gently read the script together, and start to rough in an idea about it. Meanwhile, he’s working on the dialect with Liz Himelstein, who’s his dialect coach. When we worked on a movie called Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which was George Clooney’s first directing piece, which was about … Gosh what’s the name of the guy with The Gong Show? Who it was said was also perhaps a CIA agent.
Terry: He also worked with some guys on learning how to do some stuff with knives, and guns, and stuff like that when he did Three Billboards. He did a ride along out in Missouri, even though it was filmed in North Carolina, with some cops just to get some stuff. Some of their dialogue got into the move, like they called the jail the clank. That got in. That’s pretty tough ’cause Martin McDonagh is a very tough guy in terms of his words. He thinks his words are great, but Sam got a few words in there. Sometimes we come up with dialogue when we’re doing it. There are a couple lines we came up with that are in Vice. That’s pretty typical.
Terry: The basic goal is let’s just make this clear, and specific, and interesting. Interesting not to the audience, but to Sam. I think that’s important. Can you make work that interests you? Process is different. When he did The Green Mile, which was many years ago, he was a young actor, I had been listening to this old claw hammer banjo guy named Roscoe Holcomb from the Smithsonian thing. Sam had a line in there that went, “Hey, fuck stick,” that he said to someone, probably one of the guards. I just said, “Sam, why don’t you just start to clog like some Appalachian.” We played the music, I played the banjo music, and he started to just build the character out of this idea to go, “Hey, fuck stick. Hey.” He was dancing in my kitchen to that banjo music and turning that line, which seems menacing, into something that’s more playful.
Terry: Sometimes I just start to channel weird ideas and offer them to him, and he gets it. What’s great about him is he’s so open to that. But really, we come in with a pretty blank slate. A very big thing for Sam is references to other movies. He’s especially an expert on ’70s era movies, so The Godfather, The French Connection, Kramer vs. Kramer, which is the ’80s. All those great movie actors from the ’70s, Al Pacino, Dustin Hoffman, John Cazale, Meryl Streep, James Caan, Brando, and just what could we get from that? We’ve recycled many movies, walks from movies. Or when he was working on Moon, he was thinking of Dead Ringers, the Jeremy Irons film, which was about these twin gynecologists who were evil, David Cronenberg film, and listening to Jeremy Irons’ commentary on the director’s cut of the DVD about what it was like to play twins. That was really a big door in for him.
Leigh: Fascinating. What are some common bad habits that you see actors develop?
Terry: Well we were talking about this before we started the conversation, but a lot of actors want to get the easy way out. They want to take a shortcut. They’re not willing, so they’re a little bit, I don’t like the word lazy, but I think they can get lazy, and sloppy, and general. They settle for what we we’re talking about again, the obvious choice, and they don’t really dig into the script, and into themselves. You have to be really great at script analysis, and really ask yourself, why? Why is this scene here? What am I doing? What is the function? How does that link up in something that’s alive in me?
Terry: I think they tend to take short cuts, not dig deep enough. That’s a big one. I don’t think they work on themselves enough. I don’t’ think they work on their bodies or their voices. They bring a limited instrument to the work, which is insane because they’re competing with people who went to Yale, and Juilliard, and NYU, who have spent huge amounts of money to develop thoroughbred instruments.
Terry: If you have a squeaky voice, like you look at the guys who are on The Sopranos, which is maybe one of the greatest shows ever made. It’s the 20th anniversary. But how many of those guys are working? There were a lot of New Jersey guys who got great roles for many years, did amazing work with that, but they got these accents, and what else are they doing? Now I’m talking about Edie Falco, or James Gandolfini, who unfortunately has left us, Edie is a consummate actress. But there are least 15 people on that show who you haven’t heard from since because they didn’t invest in themselves as actors. They probably don’t even think of themselves as actors.
Terry: That’s a big part. Just I think being lazy, and not having fun with it, and getting worried about their career. My sense is if you do really good work, the career will take care of itself. If you keep putting work out there, and let people know about it, and care about your work, that’s gonna be your brand.
Leigh: Related to that question, you’ve worked with I’m sure hundreds, maybe thousands of actors over many years, decades. You’ve seen some I’m assuming flame out quickly, and you’ve seen some go onto massive success at the top of their fields. Two questions. One question is, with the people who become massively successful, did you see it immediately? Did you see it on the first day? The other question is, with the people who become hugely successful, what are the traits that you see that they generally share?
Terry: I sometimes see it on the first day. Success and stardom is sometimes just about what’s hot in the market. I don’t know if Dustin Hoffman would be successful now if he were just starting out. I don’t know.
Terry: With Sam, yes. I saw him as a young 20-something actor in class, and there was something thrillingly free and irreverent about him that just made me want to look. Sam was fascinating, playful, emotional, a daredevil. From the very first time that we worked together in class … He was in Bill Esper’s class, and I was substitute teaching a lot that year for Bill, so I got to work with Sam. He wasn’t in my class, he was in Bill’s class, along with a lot of really great actors. But I was just like, “Wow. That guy’s great.” We started to work together. He had something.
Terry: Then there’s a guy like Boyd Holbrook. Boyd actually, the second year of the Meisner training is by invitation. Boyd’s work was a little bit tangled up in his first year. He was very defensive, and a bit sullen. There was something there, but a lot of it was just knotted up. I, in our meeting at the end of the year, said, “I’m not gonna invite you back right now. There’s some work for you to do.” To Boyd’s credit, he said, “Well, then let’s repeat first year.” A lot of actors when you tell them that, their pride gets in the way and they go, “Well, screw you. I don’t need you anyway,” and they go off in a huff. He’s not the first person to repeat it first year, and he just immediately offered it, which was very humble, and exciting for me, and he had a great first year the second time around. That’s when things really started to open up.
Terry: What was that about? Well he had a tricky persona, he had a tricky emotional structure that made him very defended. Once he started to understand that he could feel safe in the work and start to open up, then things really started to fly. I didn’t notice it at first, but once he was there … By the way, I don’t think when I was a freshman at NYU, anyone would have remembered my work. I didn’t know who the hell I was yet. Sometimes people come in, and they’re red hot, and you see it right away. Sometimes people need to grow, and find themselves in the work, and they blossom.
Terry: I’ve got this young woman, she’s Russian. Her first year was not great. She was very out of touch. Just in the last month in second year, she’s been really starting to get solid, and her work is very captivating. I’m interested in her all of a sudden because she’s just ready now. She did some work on herself. She went to therapy, she decided to open up. That’s great. It doesn’t have to be the first thing you see.
Leigh: You know, it strikes me that some of the people that you’ve trained, people like Boyd, for people how maybe can’t put a face to that name, he was one of the stars of Narcos, and he’s gone on to do a bunch of other stuff now.
Leigh: What’s that? Yeah.
Terry: He’s in Predator. Not a great film, but he was the star of that, and he was also the bad guy in the last Wolverine movie, whatever that was. Yeah, that was great. He’s funny too. He was in Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig.
Leigh: That’s right. Is he Australian?
Terry: No. He’s from Kentucky.
Leigh: Okay. Yeah, ’cause he played an Australian guy in that. Okay.
Terry: Yeah, he played an Australian diving instructor. He’s really good at accents.
Leigh: I’m thinking about these people, John Leguizamo, Emmy Rossum, Boyd, the list goes on, Sam. They all seem to share a quality that is they are just really, really interesting to watch. I know that sounds trivial because obviously of course they are, but I consider myself to be … I’ve been a student of acting, especially film acting since long before I ever considered to be an actor, ever since I was a little kid. There is just some people who are just more fun to watch than other people.
Terry: That’s true. But I bet that those so-called uninteresting people were more interesting when they were children. I just find most kids really … I mean, we have a question here about kids and nature, and why I think that’s important. But I have a five year old son, and even now, he’s starting to get some defenses. Like we’re very affectionate at home, but if I bring him into the kindergarten class, and I want to hug and kiss him in class, he gets embarrassed.
Terry: It’s the child in us that’s doing the acting. We start to worry about fitting in, we don’t want to be bullied, we don’t want to be made fun of. But if we could get the child when they’re at their most free, when they’re touching sand for the first time, or eating a strawberry for the first time, that wonder that children have, I find endlessly captivating. Sure, there are kids who are more interesting than others, but basically most kids are really cool to watch.
Terry: I think something in their freedom gets a little bit lost. What those actors that you just mentioned have, and people like Chris Messina, who I love working with, has this childlike wonder and devotion to play, that they see the work, they love storytelling, they love living out stories, they love having those experiences in their bodies and in their hearts. It’s a joy for them to do that play, to make believe. Some of the less interesting actors are what I’d call conventional. They’re a little stiff, and they’re good for playing CEOs, and stuff like that, but they’re not very interesting, CEOs.
Leigh: I’ve heard you talk about you believe in the holistic view of the actor, and some of the people you’ve trained talk about that. What does that mean?
Terry: This thing that we do with acting, we make it up out of our own bodies, and our voices, and our spirits. If you are a good actor but you don’t know who you are, or you don’t know how your voice works, or you don’t know how your spine works, I think you’re limited. It’s very typical for me to pay attention to everything that comes into the room.
Terry: If I have a talented actor but they have a chronic throat issue, not only does it affect their voice, but it also signals that there’s some issues with self-care there. Actors are weird, but the best actors are reliable and take care of their instrument, because this is your instrument. It’s like a Stradivarius violin.
Terry: For instance, when I first started acting, I was a smoker. A lot of people smoked cigarettes more than nowadays. My acting teacher, the great Terry Hayden at Circle in the Square Theatre School, it’s part of NYU, said, “You’re killing your instrument. How can you be a smoker and be an actor?” For a lot of reasons, first of all, it smells. Second of all, it costs money. Third of all, most people smoke and have oral habits ’cause they’re trying to suppress feelings. If there’s anything we’re trying to do, we’re trying to open up our feelings. It’s a habit.
Terry: None of that is a good idea for acting. None of that will make you a better actor. It’ll make you feel cool, and actors like to feel cool, but it’s not gonna make you a better actor. It’s like taking a screw, and attacking a guitar with it. You’d never do that. That just woke me up, and I quit smoking immediately. Even though I loved it, it was very comforting, and all that. Go to a bar and have a beer, and smoke, ’cause you could smoke in bars back then. But it wasn’t helping me.
Terry: I want to work with actors whose North Star is to be the best actor they can be. If that’s true, then there are things to pay attention to. Maybe you need some acupuncture, you definitely need to be in therapy, because unless you had perfect parents, you’re fucked. If you don’t know why you do things, why was I late to that meeting? Why did I blow up at that guy at the restaurant? If you don’t understand that about yourself, you can’t use it for your work.
Terry: Eric Clapton knows every single fret on his guitar. He knows how to make every single sound that that instrument can make. If you don’t understand every nook and cranny of your body, your voice, and your psyche, it’s not available to you. If you don’t understand it, you can’t act it. You have to understand yourself, and your study has to be mankind. If you want to play someone who’s jealous, you got to understand where jealousy lives in you, and you got to be open to that. If you’re gonna play someone who gets a broken heart, you got to know what makes your heart break.
Terry: I don’t know of any other way to do that, to really learn about yourself in the deepest way than to be in therapy, and to be in therapy for the rest of your life. I go every week. I’ve done a lot of work on myself, but I’m still unpeeling the onion, and it helps me to be a better teacher, and a better father, and a better husband, and a better artist. I think that’s important. I think you got to take care of yourself. You got to deal with whatever needs to be dealt with. If you’re late all the time, what the hell is that? Why are you late? How is that helping you? To really pay attention to what’s in the room, and not just the acting itself.
Leigh: Well, Terry, we’re coming up on the end of our time. I want to get to a couple more things. We didn’t get to everything. You’ll have to come back for another episode sometime in the future.
Terry: That’s really nice of you. It’s been easy to talk to you.
Leigh: It’s been very easy to talk to you as well. Where can people find out more about you and connect with you, and find out more about what it is you do, your school and everything?
Terry: Yeah, thank you. I have a school, it’s in Brooklyn. It’s a two-year Meisner conservatory, and we also have a summer session. It’s on the web, terryknickerbockerstudio.com. Knickerbocker is spelled like the basketball team. We’re on Instagram, Facebook, all those kinds of places.
Terry: They’re welcome to drop us a line and start a conversation, ’cause all our classes are by interview. That’s something I got from Bill Esper. Like at NYU, you audition. You also have a conversation, but there’s an audition. For this training, sometimes people come in with monologues, and they’ve been coaches within an inch of their lives, and it doesn’t really tell us who they are. We don’t do auditions, we do interviews. We want to know, what are your goals? What are you looking for? Why do you love to act? How can we help? To anyone who loves to act, is a friend of mine.
Leigh: One question that I definitely want to ask you is, what is the number one thing that actors should remember when walking into an audition room?
Terry: I think they need a mantra that I got from my wonderful colleague, Maggie Flanigan, which is, “Fuck it.” That doesn’t mean that I don’t care, it means I’m not gonna be controlled by my anxiety. I’m gonna come in. Why am I doing this in the first place? It has to do with that why, that Simon Sinek talks about, that you start with why. Why am I doing this? ‘Cause I love acting, ’cause I love to tell stories. This is a day where I get to have a few moments, I’m not on trial, this is not a test of whether I have talent or not, they’re not a firing squad.
Terry: First of all, everyone in an audition room is dying for someone to come in and do it great. They’re rooting for you ’cause they need the part. They’re actually a friendly audience, even if they seem jerky, or remote, or cynical. They actually want you to shine, ’cause if you shine, that makes their job easy. Come in. Fuck it means I’m there to have fun, let’s rock and roll. I got some ideas, let’s throw down. This is my version of the part. If you like it, great. If not it’s a better day ’cause I did some acting.
Leigh: Fuck it.
Leigh: If you liked this podcast, please got to your podcast app, scroll down, and give me a rating or a review. Thank you for listening.