The I Love Success Podcast with acting coach Terry Knickerbocker Studio
Peter Jumrukovski and Terry Knickerbocker sit down for passionate conversation regarding success, dreams, the pandemic, and hope!
PETER: Hey guys and welcome back to the I Love Success Podcast and my virtual world tour. I’ve been to Australia, I’ve been to Toronto, I’ve been to Los Angeles and now I am in New York today, meeting virtually with an amazing man who has dedicated his life to the art of acting and coaching others. He is the founder of Terry Knickerbocker Acting Studio and he loves to help others perform and excel in this beautiful art. So let’s welcome Terry Knickerbocker.
TERRY: Peter, that was a great introduction. And I have to say I love the title of your podcast, “I Love Success,” because I love to work with people who are all in on being the very best they can be and that of course leads to success.
PETER: Yeah! And I saw that on your website and you wrote: “Training the passionate actor committed to excellence.” So can we just talk about that – when does a person know that they are going to be committed to excellence? Like when does that happen in the human mind?
TERRY: Ha – you know, I don’t know if I have an answer for that. I mean, sometimes – you told me you have a karate background. When did you start karate?
PETER: I started when I was 6.
TERRY: So at what point did it move from being something that interested you into something that you were all in on being the best you can be.
PETER: For me, it was when I went to some competitions. First, I lost. I wanted to become better. And then I started winning and I realized I still was – there was still so much room for growth so I decided – hey, I really want to go all in on this and see how good can I become.
TERRY: So how old were you when that all happened?
PETER: I think I was probably 18 or 19.
TERRY: Yeah, that feels right. I’m thinking about, right now, a hockey player who came up when I was a kid – a guy named Bobby Orr who played for the Boston Bruins. And I think he became a professional hockey player at the age of 17. He was a phenomenal Canadian hockey player – just like world class, like Muhammad Ali. And, in Canada, you know, they start skating before they start walking and hockey is a huge thing there and obviously he had talent, but I think there was something in his mindset that said “I need to do this and I’m all in on it.” And he loved the competition and something got sparked there so sometimes it can happen very young. For me, as an actor, I started acting when I was 5 and loved it and did it for fun. It was just a fun thing to do and my family took me to a lot of theatre growing up and it was just my favorite thing to do. It was not until my early 20s that I wenTerry: “I really need training because I want to be good at this.” I was doing it for fun and I was getting cast in a lot of things and I actually got kicked out of college because I was acting – I was supposed to be a French major and I wasn’t going to any classes. So I loved it, but it wasn’t clear that for me, at that time: “Oh my God, I have to do this – and if I’m going to do this I have to be good, which means I have to get training.” And I applied to New York University, which is a world class training for actors and got in. And then my mission was clear. So I don’t know when that switch goes on in people – I think it can be early, I think it can be late.
TERRY: Some people are late bloomers.
PETER: Yeah. And do you witness that as an acting coach now? Do you witness that spark when people are really dedicated to taking it to the next level?
TERRY: I am looking for that spark, right? You know, New York has probably got more acting training than any other place in the world, including Los Angeles. And it is known as the Mecca of where you want to go to become the best actor you can be. Whether that’s university or – I’m so sorry, my phone is going off. Let me turn that off. Um – Or you want to go to the kind of school I have, which is sort of a retail acting thing and there’s a lot of those here. So in most acting studios, if you have a pulse, meaning a heartbeat, and a checkbook or a Mastercard – you’re in. And we’re actually very selective because there’s no worse feeling than being in an acting class as a student and having a partner that is less dedicated than you, who is thinking of it as a hobby, right? So when I meet a prospective student – first of all we have that thing that you quoted: “Training the passionate actor committed to excellence.” That is everywhere in my studio. That’s in every e-mail we send out. That tagline is our brand, right? We’re all about people who are all in in being the best they can be. How good do they want to be? And then when I meet them, the first question I’ll ask them is, well I’ll say: “How can I help you?” – which is a great question, but really the question is: “What are your goals?” And that question starts to weed out people who are more casual about it. And so – and I tell them part of the interview is in a way to scare them, right? Like – like I don’t – I think it’s – because this is a 2-year journey and so it’s not like a gym membership where you join and you decide… like karate! My son – you mentioned karate – he went to karate when he was like 4 and he wasn’t into it. So we were paying by the month so then we just dropped out and that was fine. But my school is like a 2-year commitment. So you don’t want to commit to something and then a month or two in go: “You know what? I don’t think I’m in to this. You’re too hardcore for me.” So we use the interview to self-select the right person, which means some people I’m not right for or we’re not right for them and that’s great to know. And I’m looking for someone who can say – you see it in their eyes or you can hear it in their voice – that acting feels like a calling. Like they have to do it. It’s not just that they like it and it’s not cause they want to be famous, because we can’t control that, and it’s not because other people tell them they should be an actor – it’s because nothing else makes them happier. And they have talent but they don’t know how to do it. And then the purpose of coming to train is to get the skills and the process for working that sets you up to become the best actor you can be. It takes 2 years to train and like 10-20 years to master it through practice.
PETER: And – it’s interesting you’re talking about setting goals and there’s systems, but being a creator is also being very creative, right? And I meet a lot of people that are creators and sometimes some of them struggle with the structure and the goal settings and things of that nature –
PETER: How does that tie in then – how can creators listening to this right now become better in structuring and setting goals to actually get somewhere?
TERRY: You know I was doing a little research on you and I think you have like a 3-step process, right? It’s right in line with what I think about. So here’s what I remember, and I don’t think I’ll get it right, but it’s like: have a dream, make a plan, take action. Am I close?
PETER: Yes, very close.
TERRY: Right. So that makes sense because, as Dr. Phil says, “someday is not a day of the week.” So it’s fine to say: “Ok” – the goal I’m interested in is the following goal: “I want to be the very best actor I can be.” Right? “I don’t want to be better than Brad Pitt, right? I want to be the best actor I can be, with my body, my DNA, my talent, whatever that is.” It is not a goal to say that “I want to win an Oscar,” because that’s not up to you. You’d have to be in the right project, have the right marketing and have the right votes. So I can’t control that. But I can control what I do with my talent. With that goal, then we can say: “Ok, if that’s the North Star, where does training fit in?” Right? Cause there are all kinds of ways to train and I would say my training is trying to be a very elite training. Like we want to be in the Olympics. We want to work hard and play hard and be the very best that we can be. And luckily for me, I didn’t have to come up with the structure because my mentor was a man named William Esper and his mentor was a man named Sanford Meisner and Sanford Meisner came up with this amazing system 70 years ago which I follow in a very orthodox way, and it is a brilliant approach – pedagogically – step by step by step. Again I am imagining very similar to martial arts training, where you start with white belt and there’s certain things you do and then you progress and if you keep following the steps and practice every day, you will get there. You will certainly learn it. Right? So the system is very – its two years, 64 classes twice a week for 8 months a year, so 128 classes and its very precise and very clear and I know what I am doing, structurally, in every class. And each class builds on the class before it. Right? So the structure I luckily didn’t have to come up with, but it really helped because when I trained at NYU the structure was very hit or miss and it actually started – it would be as if you started karate training with a tournament, right? And that makes no sense, right? You wouldn’t start playing the violin with a concerto, you’d start with a scale, right? With what maybe you would call a cata, right? And you wouldn’t start dance training with Swan Lake. But most western acting training starts with scenes, right? And Meisner came up with the equivalent of scales. So they are very helpful to take an actor step by step by step, sort of like juggling where you start with one ball and then you add second and then when that feels secure you add a third and that systematic approach to training gives a very clear structure, which was incredibly helpful and liberating for me.
PETER: I mean, they say that discipline and structure equals freedom.
TERRY: Yes, exactly!
PETER: Which is – but if you talk to a lot of people who are “talented,” so to speak, they hate structure; they hate discipline so how do you tie that in with creators? Is that a challenge for you?
TERRY: No, because every – look, actors are weird. I mean, there are a lot of weird and flaky actors. But if you don’t have good professional habits, you’re not going to work. You can’t – I mean. You can’t just be late. You can’t not know your lines. You show up on set for a new project for Netflix and there’s a hundred people on set and they’ve committed 20 million dollars or more to the project – you can’t be a flake. So you can’t just be: “I’m talented.” Because you also have to know your lines which means put your butt in the chair and learn your lines. And you’d have to have worked out the moments so that your work is clear and precise and interesting, right? So I have a student right now and she’s very talented. But she won’t do the work. And you can see it in her work. That her work is very hit or miss and she knows it. She’s one of those people you are talking abouTerry: “Ugh, I just hate to sit down and get into structure. I just want to wing it.” But that doesn’t work.
PETER: It’s sad to see all those talents. I know in karate, my father is me sensei, and I wasn’t talented at all but I had this inner drive to become good and do the work and looking now – when I am in the position I am and I’ve had the performance that I have had, it feels good that I did that work and I feel bad when I meet those guys and girls that could’ve been champions but they weren’t willing to do the work and I can see it in their eyes now that they have that regret, which is sad. What would you – How would your best students describe you? Like your favorite students. How would they describe you as a coach.
TERRY: Well – I want to first of all make a distinction between the part of my work that is related to coaching and the part of my work that is related to teaching because they are two separate streams of work for me. So they would probably – if it were the coaching people, which are more lie professional actors who are working. Because in film and television, you have no time to rehearse now. And rehearsal is where you figure stuff out, so there are a lot of professional actors, whose name you might know, that hire me anytime they get a project and then we go through their stuff a couple weeks before, a couple of months before, to really make sure everything is mapped out because if you are a film and tv actor you have to show up on set ready to go – loaded up. Not just knowing your lines, but having a performance; an idea; a roadmap. So I think those people would describe me as smart, full of good ideas, fun to work with, and very detail oriented so that they always leave a session, hopefully, feeling like: “Oh, I have a better handle on what I was going to do thanks to the work we did.” And it’s very collaborative. Like it’s not just me feeding them. We talk about it. We see where they’re coming from – usually they have some ideas. And then we jam on those. I think my students would say some of those things, but they would see me as a bit more hardcore, a bit more demanding, a bit more rigorous. I like to run a tight ship – not a mean ship, but a very disciplined ship. And I don’t want to waste time. I mean, we work hard and we play hard. Acting, has within it, the spirit of play – it’s not just Navy seals, right? But that discipline is helpful because you got to be all in. Because you’re going to be competing with people – look, there are too many actors. It’s not like lawyers and doctors where we need lots of them. Even with all the content there is, there’s still too many actors. And so the only way to have edge is to be the best person in the room. And the only way to be consistently the best person in the room is to work your butt off.
PETER: How do you work and help your clients and students with dealing with pressure? Because I can imagine, like being an athlete, being an actor is tremendous pressure.
TERRY: It can be. I think, you know, when you talk to athletes, they talk sometimes about like, being in the zone, and things sort of slow down, like being in the matrix. And I think preparation is everything. So If you know you have done your work, you’re going to feel less pressured. And there is a mantra that I like to use, which is: F*** it. Which doesn’t mean I don’t care, but it means I’m not going to be controlled by tension. I’m doing this because I love acting and I feel good about my work. I feel ready. Because there’s a lot of pressure on an actor, on an athlete – it’s the World Series, the bottom of the ninth, your team is behind by 1 run, there’s a guy on base. You’re either going to win the game or lose the game. And if you let that pressure get to you, chances are you’ll freak out and stress yourself out. So you just got to go: “I’m going to do my work. I’m going to look for the best pitch. And hopefully I connect.” I mean, Michael Jordan famously said that he, I think took, 300 or more potential game winning shots and didn’t win the game. And it made him a winner to do that. He wants the ball and sometimes you’re not going to do it. Every actor has done bad work. But hopefully you come from a place of loving what you’ve done and loving the form and loving telling the story. One thing that is cool about acting is we get to put our attention outside ourselves. So if I were to pressure myself to do a good podcast interview with you, I’d be stressing out but instead I put my attention on you and the café behind you and I’m looking at your shirt, and your smile, and your teeth – that attention coming off myself, frees me up a little bit. So I think you have to stay loose, stay playful. Not get tense physically and come from a place of love. I love doing this! I’ve done my work and I feel ready! It’s a great feeling to feel like you know what you’re doing. And to walk feeling “I’ve done everything I can and it’s either going to work out or not,” but really good actors tend to be consistent.
PETER: How do you come back to your students and clients – they prepared, done all the work and they lose out on that role that they really wanted? What’s the discussion and how do you motivate them to continue?
TERRY: Move on – move on. Right? There’s a guy I know – we use these things called sides, which is basically just a couples pages from a script, right? And you go in and you do your audition usually with some sides. And after every audition, he rips up the sides and throws it in the garbage, because the work’s out there and you never know what’s going to come of that and you never know why you didn’t get the part. One time, one of my first profession directing opportunities, I went to school and had a wonderful, extremely talented classmate who’s work I loved more than anybody in my class. And so when it came time to direct, man did I want him to play the part. So he auditioned, he did a great job. It was a story between a man and a woman. But the best woman I saw, when they worked together, like the chemistry – because she was older and bigger, and she was the best for that part – made him look more like her son. So I wouldn’t have been able to tell the right story if I cast him. So he didn’t get the part. For his sake I told him why. It wasn’t cause he didn’t do a good audition – it was cause it wasn’t going to work for the project based on the other pieces in it, but actors rarely get that feedback. They just geTerry: “No, you didn’t get it. We loved you but we’re going in a different direction.” That direction could be younger, older, taller, shorter, more blonde, less blonde, more ethnic, less ethnic – and it doesn’t matter, right? Because you put the work out there and then you move on. And hopefully you get to have a lot of auditions and if you keep doing good auditions, you’re going to get cast eventually. One of the guys I work with is Sam Rockwell, who is an amazing actor – we’ve been working together for 28, 29 years. One time, maybe 10 or 15 years ago, he auditioned for Duncan Jones – Duncan Jones is David Bowie’s son and a wonderful film director – and didn’t get the part. Three years later, that audition made such an impression that Duncan wrote a movie for Sam – a movie called “Moon,” which is basically a one-man show – he plays like several different clones of himself. It’s an extraordinary film, one of the best performances of that year. So you never know where things are going to go. He didn’t know when he did that audition and didn’t get the part, that the director was so blown away by him that he wrote a movie for him. So I just say: don’t get discouraged, don’t take it personally. Cause look at the odds: let’s say 200 actors audition for one part – you have a half a percent chance of getting it, so all you can do is put your best work out there and move on. I can’t tell you how many actors I have worked with that their feedback they get is: “I loved your work but we’re going in a different direction.” You can’t take that personally – you just have to get back on the horse.
PETER: I think that the hardest thing is, not only in acting but with everything, is to be unattached to the outcome, right? Because –
TERRY: Perfect. Yes.
PETER: How do we do that? I was talking last week with Alexander Volkanovski and he’s the current Featherweight UFC Champion and he’s super composed and we talked about that. He’s like: “I’ve done the work. I’m going in there. I have confidence in myself.” And I mean, that’s why he is the champion. But people that are listening now that want to achieve that level, that want to hold on to the results so much that they lose their performance – what do you want to tell them?
TERRY: You just kind of grabbed your fist so I’d say soften your body, take a breath, say F*** it, do the best you can and rip up those sides! Don’t be attached to the outcome. That’s a very Jedi mind trick kind of thing to do but, you know, one of my mentors favorite books, Sanford Meisner, was a book called Zen in the Art of Archery and it was about an archer who was very good, world-class, but not quite at the top. And he heard about a sensei in Japan who was teaching archery. And so he went there and they just broke down his technique and started from scratch. They didn’t even use arrows for the first three months. They just picked up the bow and pulled the string back. And really focused on process, on the breath, on staying grounded in his feet – all these things that had nothing to do with bullseyes, because the goal is a bullseye in archery, but they focused on everything but bullseye. And when he finally got arrows, the arrows went all over the place. He was worse archer in the middle of this process than he was when he got there. And the teacher just said “Keep doing it. Something is coming.” And by trusting the process and not focusing on results, eventually he got bullseye after bullseye after bullseye, so that’s very much the mindset of the work that I teach and also of being in the game. Just keep doing the work. The results will take care of themselves, they have to cause we live in a kind of cause and effect universe. So – not a kind of a cause and effect universe – a cause and effect universe so if you keep putting good work out there, eventually something’s going to come back to you. Doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t.
PETER: Do you think a lot of people quit too early? And what do you want to say to those that are 3 feet from gold?
TERRY: Ha ha, that’s great. I know where that comes from. That’s a great story – 3 feet from the gold. Um, hang in there. And if you don’t, then you don’t have the grit to this because it takes grit. You’ve got to have faith when the dawn in darkest, you know? Here we are, in this crazy crisis that is affecting the whole world. You know, some businesses are doing great – Amazon is doing great in this time but there are a lot of businesses that are going to go out of business and its very scary to me as someone who – I mean no one is coaching with me right now because there are no projects happening. Everything is on hold, right? And my business depends on students being in a room together sweating. Well, no one is going to come to New York City and sweat in a room together – first of all, we’re not allowed to and even when things open up, that will be nervous-making for people. So we’ve moved all our classes online and amazingly, the classes are great. And the students are doing great work. But it does make me nervous because the next unit would be the Summer Intensive and we’re not getting a lot of calls because people are not thinking about stuff like that right now. And then I heard the other day that universities are thinking about the fall classes being online – that even by September, we won’t be ready to come back together. Now some schools are going to go out of business. They just can’t sustain that, cause if you’re a kid and you were going to go to college, you don’t want to go to college online. You’re going to say: “Let me take a gap year.” Which means they’re not going to have the income and they’re not going to have the student body. That stuff makes me nervous. Makes me nervous. So I’m just holding on to – we’re going to pivot the best way we can. I know the work we do is great – I’ve got a great faculty; I’ve got great students. We will eventually be back in the room together and I just got to have faith. And hold on and run a lean operation until we can get back there.
PETER: I think that’s – these are the moments where we can really, truly work on our mindset, right? Because –
TERRY: And the work itself!
PETER: You’re right.
TERRY: I have a teacher – I’m on a Zoom call every Saturday with like 60 acting teachers from around the country, It is so helpful to just talk though this time. And this wonderful acting teacher named David Tony from down in Virginia said, very sternly to his students, “Do not make it that when we are out of this, you’re going to use this time as an excuse for why you didn’t get better.” Use this time to get better now. Right? Use this time. And what a wonderful invitation that is!
PETER: No, I love that. And I think – one saying that I heard that I like: “If you’re in your head, your dead.” And like stop thinking about it, start making small moves to improve. You probably haven’t had this much time to actually dig deep into your passions like you have right now so what are you going to do about that? That’s my question. Why is acting and helping others so important, do you think, Terry?
TERRY: Two different questions – I mean I love stories – my favorite – I love art, I love all art. You know I love paintings and sculptures and poetry and novels and music and opera and dance. All that stuff is great because art holds the mirror up to nature and is really necessary for the world. It’s not frivolous. It actually heals people because when you see yourself reflected in a work of art, you feel less alone. You go, “Oh that artist understands me. I feel seen.” And that is a very meaningful thing – to heal the human race. But acting is the one, and storytelling on that level, is the one that appeals to me the most. So I just love. So what a great thing, you know – that thing that they say that if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life? It doesn’t feel like work – it just feels like the thing I love to do. The thing about helping others – I was very influenced as a freshman at NYU about a teacher there who was a brilliant teacher but kind of mean and could say very cruel things, as sometimes teachers do. And I don’t think that’s a wise thing to do – he was brilliant, he knew what he was doing – but I saw him say things that I found injurious to other people and that stayed with me. So it took a long time before I gave myself permission to be a teacher because I thought it’s like you’re holding that person’s heart in your hands and I didn’t want to do any damage. But when I eventually moved to teaching, it seemed like: okay, I think I have some talent for this. It seemed like that was the feedback I’m getting and I loved – I love – it’s like watching my son grow – I love helping people to become the very best – there he is, hi buddy, there you are – the very best that they can be. Like that’s my particular jam is just like: Let me help you reach your potential. I have a pretty good eye for seeing the germ of talent and the possibility, right? Which is small and just helping it emerge and take shape and grow and expand – hey bud, how ya doin? – So that’s exciting for me and just so meaningful. It is so meaningful for me to see someone – I had a woman from Puerto Rico, she was an attorney and she came to me to want to study when my studio first opened and she was very tight and she was in her head and her body was locked up and I was there like: “Pfft, I don’t know if this is going to work out.” Right? And her work at first was very restricted. But she was hungry and she was doing it because she had a love to try it. You know, it would obviously be much easier for her to be an attorney? And so she did everything I suggested. I said “Get into movement class,” she did that; I said “Get into voice class,” she did that. And with the combination of that and vision and drive and hard work, all of a sudden the hard shell around her heart started to open up and man did she blossom! I mean she just like – she was just like that fable of the Tortoise and the Hare and the Tortoise is running – I mean the Hare is running and the Tortoise is going slow and you go “How is this guy going to win the race?” But she came out so strong and so interesting and her work is so human and moving to watch. I mean I just get chills thinking about her work. That’s exciting. That’s so exciting to be a part of that and to help her see it – it’s so rewarding.
PETER: Yeah, it’s beautiful and to help others grow is one of the most beautiful things. And we were talking about success in the beginning of the podcast, like – my goal is to redefine success and that’s why I meet with top leaders, just like yourself – can you just share what’s your definition of success?
TERRY: I was going to ask you what yours was!
PETER: I think mine – my definition is something that I’ve heard from Maya Angelou and that’s: “Doing what you like how you like it when you like it.”
TERRY: Hmm, that sounds great.
PETER: But I’m still working on it. I’m learning new things from the people that I meet and I know that success should be different for everybody. You shouldn’t change someone else’s success.
TERRY: Right – I don’t think success is external validation. I don’t think you’re a success because you won an Oscar. I think success has to do with – if it comes to acting, ultimately playing leading parts, the best you can in projects you care about, right? So if you would love to be in A Streetcar Named Desire, that’s a part – that’s a project you would love to do that Tennessee Williams play and you’d love to play Blanche – you’d love to play Stanley – and you have something to add to it that comes from the artist in you, meaning the artist in Tennessee Williams who wrote that – that’s fantastic, right? And I think a life’s success would be to be able to do that consistently so that you get up every morning and you do the very best job you can, collaborating with other wonderful artists, meaning writers, actors, directors, editors, sound people – that’s thrilling, right? And to be able to do that and then to learn from your mistakes and come back to do it again better the next day – that, to me, would be success. So success, for me, has to do with longevity.
PETER: I love that. And also, I really love what you were saying that it’s not about the external validation and it ties into something Tom Bilyeu said: “Success is how you like yourself when you are with yourself.”
TERRY: That’s right! That’s right. When no one’s around.
TERRY: Are you proud of yourself when no one’s around? Right? That private behavior says everything. I love that! I like him – I like listening to him; he’s all in.
PETER: He’s awesome. And I think, also – when we talk about being successful, and especially when we talk about performance and acting – I love acting and one thing that I am always fascinated by is the people that are doing projects that they really want to do.
TERRY: Absolutely, which sometimes means, because it is a business too and actors have to be their own CEO’s – it’s not just the artform; you have to create opportunities for yourself and you have to play some games, right? Not in a way that makes you a prostitute but in a way that puts you in all the rooms you want to be in. So sometimes an actor will say “One for me, one for them. So, I’ll do a Marvel movie, which is not necessarily the artistic pinnacle for me, but that creates an opportunity and buzz cause it’s going to be huge that lets me do that small, independent film of my favorite, weird Italian novel, where I love the part but I know that people are not going to be flocking to theaters to see it, but I know I will love the work I do.” And so sometimes you have to go big to go small to be able to do the work that you love to do. And sometimes you have to take meetings with people who can open doors for you, right? Still staying authentic, but you do have to play – you have to have thin skin in the work and very thick skin around the business. And take as many meetings as you can and meet as many people as you can and not be a jerk but also not just go along with things.
Hang on a second – Henry, you gotta be quiet buddy. I’m talking to somebody. He’s playing his instrument, right?
You know, there’s a guy, who’s name I’m forgetting, but he has a reputation of being kind of difficult to work with and he would say – Bubba, shh! I gotta talk to this guy! We’ll have a concert in a minute. Okay? Can you stop playing that? Please. Let me have that for a second, okay? Please? Thanks.
PETER: Isn’t it amazing to be a kid?
TERRY: It’s great! It’s great! He’s so free; he’s free and full of feelings.
And this guy was said “Why are you saying I’m difficult? Don’t we care about the same thing? So if I say, look can we do another take? That doesn’t make me a diva – that’s me saying, let’s get this as good as we can!” Right? And I like that – I like that commitment to excellence and not just being political about things.
PETER: I mean, I recognize that when we talk about commitment to excellence and when you were talking about your – I haven’t personally been to your acting classes but I would love to and –
TERRY: You’re welcome!
PETER: Yeah, thank you. It feels like you are intense – just like my father and sensei. And I know when I was training for big tournaments, I recognize what you said in the beginning. I wanted to be in the room with people that had the same goals as me. It pissed me off if people didn’t want to do their best.
TERRY: Yes. That’s right.
PETER: Because then they ruin my training and I was pretty intense about that. I didn’t mean to be rude. It was just that this was my dream and I take it one hundred percent seriously.
TERRY: Absolutely. You know, we have an agreement with students that they have to rehearse between every class. That’s on them, that’s a discipline. So they come to class twice a week for 3.5 hours of class and then they have to rehearse with their partner. That’s the agreement. That’s our contract. They know that going in. And I say if that’s not working out, do your best to work it out. But if you can’t work it out together, come to me to talk to me about it. And they go “Oooh, I don’t want to be a tattletale or a snitch.” And I say “This is your money and your classes and if it’s not working out, we’ll fix it.” And that person is going to come around or they’ll leave my studio if they can’t abide by the agreement, it’s not going to work out. And so that frees people up to have high expectations, maybe you’re not going to vote for the same person that person votes for, maybe you’re not going to have the same taste in music, but you should be able to count on the fact that if they’re in class with you, they’re just as all in as you are. They’re going to bring their best game.
PETER: Where do you want to see, like if you look at your life and like you dedicated your life to this, where do you see your work the next 5, 10 years? What are your goals and your mission?
TERRY: Yeah, I mean I feel great about where I am right now, which doesn’t mean I don’t have ambition. I’m just really pleased with who I’ve been able to become so far and who I have surrounded myself and the amazing students and the amazing staff, the amazing clients that I get to work with. So I would just say, more of the same, right? Like, I want to work with – I want to meet some new actors, to teach who inspire me. I want to work with some wonderful professional actors that I haven’t worked with yet on great projects and great scripts. You know, I was lucky enough in the last couple of years, through referrals, to work with some people like Zac Efron, Sacha Baron Cohen. These are new clients for me, because I have a bunch of regulars, and working with those guys was so inspiring because they are so great and they have great projects. Like they’re at the top of their game so to be honored by them trusting me to work on something with them and have it come out well – that’s thrilling. That’s a lot of fun and very – what a great honor.
PETER: Yeah, that’s awesome. And I think that’s the reward you get from dedicating your life to something right?
TERRY: Yeah, yeah. I mean those guys are trusting me. They’re saying, you know “Help me with this project. And it’s like happening now and there’s a lot of money riding on it. And a lot of all kinds of stuff.” And I say “Okay, well I’m just going to do the best I can.” I don’t feel pressured by that, I just feel excited.
PETER: That’s good – you trust your abilities.
TERRY: I do, and that took a long time. You know, I had to make some mistakes. I was a very bad teacher when I started, I would say. That is to say that I was good for some people but I turned some people off because I was trying to be my teacher. And he had a – he was a very big personality so he could sometimes say some very arrogant things that he can get away with but when I did it, it was like “Dude, who the hell are you? Shut up.” And I had to make those mistakes to go “Oh, I got to be my version of the teacher. He’s got to be his version of the teacher.” That took some – that took a lot of mistakes. We learn from our mistakes.
PETER: We do and I think modelling is so important but also to find what’s our own core values right? I’m curious –
TERRY: That’s right. Now, Peter I have to say that everything you say is so aligned with what I believe in. There is nothing you’ve said that made me go “Okay, I’ll go along with this but that’s not me.” Like we are completely simpatico, which is fascinating to me.
PETER: Thank you – it is fascinating. And I think martial arts is in a way very similar – Bruce Lee said that it’s the art of expressing the human body and I think that’s very similar to acting in a way, right?
TERRY: Yeah. And be like water – that’s good too. Um, but yeah. The body and the voice. So the voice is a very important part of what we work with.
PETER: How important is it to have – we talked about when you act and pain – how important is pain in an actor’s career and being able to express that?
TERRY: When you say pain do you mean physical pain or emotional pain?
PETER: Emotional pain.
TERRY: Well, hopefully an actor doesn’t focus on one particular color. So I would say what makes a great actor, among other things, is a richly, lively temperament in all directions so they can laugh, they can cry, they can get mad, they can get embarrassed. And we have an idea, usually, that happiness is a good feeling and sadness or hurt is a bad feeling, but that would be like saying to a musician that a major chord is a nice chord and a minor chord or a diminished chord is a bad chord; or the color blue is great but the color brown is not as good, but really they’re just part of nature. And so pain’s not important but freedom and truth and authenticity and access to all your feelings is important.
PETER: Does that come from your own experience to be able to purvey it as an actor or can you learn those things?
TERRY: Well luckily, if you are a human being, those feelings are usually part of the possibility. Now, it’s true that in growing up some people get the message that certain feelings are unacceptable. So like if you had a marine drill sergeant for a father and he said “Don’t cry. Boys don’t cry.” You would start to shut down your vulnerability. Or if you were kind of a wild child and then you got in to trouble and you were told “You’re too crazy. You need anger management. Don’t get angry.” Then you would start to shut that down. So sometimes the training is as much about unlearning as it is about learning – to gain – to regain access to what was your birthright. Certain people, just in their temperament are fuller than others. My son is full of feelings. When he laughs he laughs, when he cries he cries, when he gets mad he gets mad – I think in a way that was more intense than me as I remember myself as a kid. That’s just him. Other people are a little bit more contained. So you do want to free that up in a vigorous way, but some people have it in smaller amounts than others, but as long as they can kinda get that going, they’ll get they need.
PETER: And Terry, who fills you up? Because you’re giving so much to others. How do you keep your cup full, so to speak?
TERRY: Yeah, well I think you have to – you know – selfcare is important. First of all, my family is amazing. My son makes me smile and full of love every day and we’re very affectionate. My wife – I have an amazing wife, who is a former actor and is a therapist and is from Ireland and she’s funny and passionate and deep. One of the amazing benefits of this pandemic that we’re in is that I’m home all the time. So I have so much more time with them than I would if I were working at my studio and that’s an incredible blessing, so that’s great. Working out – I have an amazing trainer who is a genius of the body and also very funny and right now we’re doing it on Facetime. But I love – that’s very helpful, to take care of the body. I love cooking. I love playing the guitar – that really fills my soul up. So every day I’m playing a little guitar, and every day I’m doing something physical and every day I’m with my family and then going to see work, you know? And watching good shows. And right now it’s all online, I can’t go to a theater. Listening to music. Talking to my mom – she’s 93. And obviously we can’t visit her right now but she’s going strong. That’s great. Being in touch with friends. Just living life the fullest way I can.
PETER: I love that and have you, during this, what’s going on right now, we have more time – have you had a chance to reflect on your own life and kind of see what’s going to happen, how am I going to show up when this is over?
TERRY: Well, I got to say I don’t feel like I have a lot more time because –
PETER: Ha ha, me too! I have less actually.
TERRY: Yeah, it feels like it. Yeah, I’m teaching a lot. And also my son needs some support – you know school was the baby sitter so now that there’s no school, my wife is handling his online learning and there’s just – there seems to be a lot to do. So I don’t feel like I have a massive amount of time, first of all. But I think the most important thing I did – because I would’ve said the first week of March, when it looked like we were heading towards the possibility of not being able to be together, and that hadn’t been decided yet – I would’ve said “I’m going to go out of business.” Because there is no way to teach acting online. Even though I had been coaching online for 10 or 15 years when people couldn’t be in the room with me. When I’m working with someone in LA this is how we do it. But I just thought, no, you can’t do acting online, you can’t do movement online, you can’t do voice online – we’re just going to shut down and maybe we’ll close our doors forever, right? I was very discouraged and very pessimistic. And then I heard that NYU, where I taught for over 30 years which was my alma mater, was putting their classes online – as was every university. And I went “How’s that going to work?” And I went and saw my old boss at NYU and she was very jolly and she said “Well, basically they said ‘Do it or you’re fired.’” And she said “What better group of people to figure it out than us because we’re improvisers.” And that started to turn my head towards: this could work. And then that next week, which was the week of March 16th, was our spring break so everyone was off classes. We had our last class on Friday the 13th in person, and some people were absent already. They thought they were feeling sick. They didn’t want to get other people sick. They thought social distancing, which was a new thing and wasn’t really the norm, was the socially responsible thing to do. So I had that week, I was going to go to Mexico. I cancelled my trip. I said “If we’re going forward, I need to save my business.” And I spent that week with my staff online, with teachers online, calling everybody I knew, getting on these Zoom calls with all these others teachers, getting myself completed pivoted towards: We’re going to do this. And we called every one of our students, cause they were very doubtful. And many of them were waiters, bartenders, baristas, babysitters – totally out of work and couldn’t pay for class, right? And so we called every single one of them and got everyone to buy in – that was a major thing. It was the hardest week of my life, that week before we went online. And then I thought “Okay, we’ll try it for a week. I don’t think it’s going to work. We’ll try it. Let’s see. Because if it’s not going to be excellent, I don’t want to do it.” And the work started to pop. And I’ve seen as good work online, with people in their various homes – and some of them are in Arkansas now, they’ve gone home; they’re in San Diego, they’re in Maryland, they’re in Connecticut, they’re in Idaho; they’re all over and they’re all on these Zoom screens and they’re doing amazing work. And they’re all in. They’re all in and it is so inspiring. And so that’s what I’ve learned because you can get complacent teaching the same thing for 30 plus years, and I’ve had to learn a lot. I’ve had to learn a different way of approaching this work that still gets to the essence of it. And how to motivate people and how to get them to buy into it because it’s very discouraging – the news around us gets worse and worse every day. And so to be able to shut that off and come into the space and do your work and do it full, open heartedly – Man, that’s incredible. And I’m proud of myself. And I’m so proud of the students. And I’m so proud of my faculty. And I’m so proud of my staff. I haven’t missed a payroll. Right? Not everyone can pay – we’re extending credit to people but when they get a little money, they’ll give it to us and we’ll figure this out. I’m so excited and energized by that. That’s what I’m taking away from this.
PETER: I love that and I mean, you are – truly you are a winner. And I love what you said: “If I can’t do it excellent, I’m not going to do it.” And I think this is challenging for all of us ,but also we are going to see beautiful things, just like what you have done. And all of a sudden, maybe your work is going to expand to different parts of the world.
TERRY: That’s interesting! Yeah, I was thinking if we have to be online in the fall or whatever, maybe we’ll get some people from Macedonia who don’t need a visa. They can just join us.
PETER: Isn’t that incredible?
TERRY: It’s incredible. It’s not what I prefer – I really long to get back into the room. This works best in the room, in person. Just as karate class would, right?
PETER: I agree and I honestly – I said no to all my podcast virtually before. Before this happened, I’ve never done a virtual podcast. Because I love sitting face to face –
TERRY: Yeah, we were supposed to meet in person! I was supposed to be in LA this week and I cancelled that trip.
PETER: So I’ve been pivoting as well and I mean – I would love to sit face to face and give you hug and thank you for an amazing conversation.
TERRY: Ditto, my friend.
PETER: So, we’re going to finish up now. I just want to ask you one last question. We’re all about sharing tools and journeys, as we’ve done today, but at the end of the day I want the people that are watching and listening to this to actually take action in their own life, so what would be your best advice for them to go after their dream and what could be their first step?
TERRY: Yeah, you know this guy James Clear, Atomic Habits? He’s an interesting fellow and he studies how to create good habits and he’s really into micro steps. So I think what intimidates people is that if they want to climb Mount Everest, they think about the top instead of just the first step. So any step will help. So I’d say clarify the dream and do what you love. Don’t do it because it’s what your mother wants you to do or what your family says you should do or your neighbors – like what is going make you want to get up in the morning and do something and its never too late to pursuit it. I mean, in some cases; if you want to be a professional basketball player and you’re 60 years old, that’s challenging, but maybe you can coach or maybe you can -right? Like there’s some way to get closer to the thing that makes you happy. There was a book, years ago, that says: “Do what you love and the money will follow.” And so, I would say the most important thing is to identify what would make you want to get up in the morning and approach that from love rather than fear. Right? Fear’s going to come in – don’t listen to that voice. Acknowledge it, but say “I want to do this.” And then what is the first step you can take towards that? And just keep taking steps, one by one by one.
PETER: Thank you Terry for sharing that. Are you taking on students now? If there people listening and watching this that would love to work with you?
TERRY: I am! And also coaching clients for when these projects start up again. You know, we’re happy to have a conversation. We don’t believe in auditions; a lot of schools do auditions but we just do it through conversation, so they’re welcome to look for my website: terryknickerbockerstudio.com or @terryknickerbockerstudio on Instagram – we have a lot of fun on Instagram! You can message us and reach out and we’ll be happy to have a conversation and see if it’s a good fit, if we can help you to achieve your dreams.
PETER: Terry – thank you so much. We will share those links as well. I appreciate your time, I appreciate what you do – that you are sharing so open-heartedly and big shout out to our friend Matthew Del Negro –
TERRY: Great guy!
PETER: Who introduced us together. I’m super grateful for that. He’s an amazing guy. And I’m just so grateful for this. Is there anything you want to say before we leave for the day.
TERRY: Well, first of all, I want to say, Peter, you’re a gentleman – I can sense your kindness. I think kindness is very important right now. And patience. It’s stressful times, so selfcare is important. Take it easy. Go slow. Lower your expectations a little bit and know that things aren’t going to work out sometimes, just through technology and just be kind to yourself and to others. And, yeah – try to enjoy this time the best you can. It’s a hard time we’re in and everybody knows someone who got sick or who has perished and I hope we come out of the other side a kinder, gentler, warmer world. I hope we do.
PETER: I truly hope so, as well, that we remember. My yoga teacher says to put your head in your heart and that is something I am working on.
PETER: And everybody that is still here and still listening an hour into this incredible conversation – first of, thank you for your time.
TERRY: Of course.
PETER: We do this for you and if you want more of these conversations, go to ilovesuccess.co. We have almost 180 conversations now, with top leaders just like Terry. Also, giving away a few free chapters of my book because, at the end of the day we’re giving all of this for free. The only thing we ask is that you take your life seriously enough to do something beautiful with it. To go after your dreams. To do what you love. And if you enjoyed this conversation, share it with somebody that can have some meaning in listening to this and also can improve their life. Thank you so much.
TERRY: You’re welcome. Thank you!
PETER: Thank you – take care, Terry! Hope to see you. Here is a virtual hug.
TERRY: Same to you! You can feel that actually! When I reach out to you, you can feel it.
PETER: I felt it.
TERRY: Yeah, alright – take care. Thank you, Peter.
PETER: Take care.
TERRY: Alright, stay safe.
PETER: You too. Bye-bye.