Terry sits down with Michelle & Nicole of the wonderfulInside the Agency podcast for a in depth conversation on why actors need goals, empathy, & authenticity
MICHELLE: Welcome to Inside the Agency. I’m your host Michelle Gauvin.
NICOLE: I’m your co-host Nicole Shawcross.
MICHELLE: We have the fabulous Terry Knickerbocker with us that is known for his amazing coaching skills out of New York with the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. Terry, we are so glad to have you here today.
TERRY: That’s nice, thank you. It’s nice to be with you both, Nicole & Michelle.
MICHELLE: Thank you.
TERRY: On Zoom.
MICHELLE: I know.
NICOLE: Via Zoom. Hey, if I could be in New York I would be there in a heartbeat.
MICHELLE: Agreed. We’re both jumping on a plane.
TERRY: I think you guys are doing it better in Canada, I must say.
NICOLE: I think we are. I used to live in New York. I lived in New York for about three years and I adored it so much. I miss it. And I’d love to be back to visit some friends. And the city.
TERRY: Well, yeah. We’ve got a great governor.
NICOLE: It’s a little different right now with COVID.
TERRY: It is, you know, I mean they’re just starting to open up gyms and there’s a lot of outdoor dining.
TERRY: And they’re really cleaning the subways incredibly. I got nervous taking the subway but everyone’s got to wear a mask and for the most part people behave and you know, you don’t touch the polls and — we have a great governor. We’re lucky.
NICOLE: I’ve never touched those polls. I have to say every time I’d hold myself in a stance when I was on public transit no matter where I was in the world. I just thought, that’s just a lot of germs. Just saying.
TERRY: Don’t touch the polls!
NICOLE: Don’t touch me. Come infect yourself.
MICHELLE: I have to remember not to touch my face and to wash my hands right after.
TERRY: That’s right. That’s right.
MICHELLE: Well, we wanna jump in and talk about your start and find out how you began in the industry.
TERRY: Yeah, it’s interesting, I was listening to – did my little research – and I was listening to your podcast and specifically to one of your last episodes with Laura Mac and then with the Matt Del Negro, which is kind of how we’re connected because Matt – I was on his podcast, maybe over a year ago – and then that lead to Ayla, that led to Jeb Beach, who you’ve also had as a guest and that’s led me to you. And so, the industry, of course, is something you guys are hyper-focused on and I’m – well, where would we be without the industry – but I try to focus more on the art of it. And so, my start: there wasn’t an industry. Like, Ayla was a child actor at the age of 7 in Les Mis in Australia and getting paid and joining the union. I started acting when I was 4 but it wasn’t professional. It was just like, you know, church shows and school shows and middle school shows and then musicals in high school and camp. And I just did it cause I loved it. I loved pretending to be other people, and I loved telling stories and I loved – yeah, I loved pretending. And so I discovered that it was all I wanted to do. And so, the industry piece came after the love of the thing, which I think is true for a lot of people. So I don’t know how to answer the question about the industry, especially because I pivoted or — you know, that’s the word we all use with COVID — but was an actor and then became a director and then kind of fell into teaching and then that became my life: teaching and coaching actors which is very much related to the industry. And there was professional work along the way but it always comes back to the telling of the stories to me and doing that well.
MICHELLE: So how long have you had your studio?
TERRY: Yeah. So, huh, I started this studio in….just five years ago, 2015. I had trained with a wonderful teacher that many people know who died about a year ago: William Esper. And Esper had trained with Sanford Meisner at the Neighborhood Playhouse and I went to study with Bill at his studio in New York City after graduating from NYU, um and discovering that despite that amazing pedigree I didn’t always know what I was doing. That not all actor training sets you up to know what you’re doing. And meanwhile I got the chance to watch this wonderful actor in a show backstage night after night and he was just amazing and he was doing everything I wanted to do. And I said, “How did you–uh–how’d you do that?” And he said, “Well, I studied with Bill.” And so I went and studied with Bill for two years and then like never left.
TERRY: And sort of discovered directing by accident and everything Bill taught me – and I like directing even more than acting because I like to be in charge – and–
MICHELLE: (Laughing) I hear you.
TERRY: You know, I mean, I’d always like – I’d be in shows and I’d wanna like, you know, dress the other actors in other costumes or tell them where to stand. You know, actors shouldn’t do that, that’s a no-no. So, discovering directing gave me a place to put all those ideas, not just to be in charge but to kind of imagine not just my role but the whole thing. And then I quickly discovered that– you know, we say in New York that the theater pays you in hugs–
TERRY: You know, and directing doesn’t even – you know, you get a half a hug. It’s pretty much impossible to make a living as a theater director unless you either have a long running show on Broadway, like Joe Mantello has Wicked or Julie Taymor has Lion King. Or you’re on staff at a theater. You know, like you’re the artistic director or the associate artistic director or the literary director. Or you teach. Well– or you direct soaps. A lot of theater directors made a living directing soaps between gigs. So I tried that. I spent a day on Guiding Light and it was– that was– I mean, I wanna say something mean but I won’t–
MICHELLE: You can say whatever you like (laughs)
TERRY: I just, I felt like my soul was being sucked dry just imagining myself doing that. And it’s not to say that there aren’t wonderful actors and writers and directors doing that work. They’re professionals, they care, they’re not jerks. But the kinds of stories that were getting told, and the kinds of acting that I was seeing on that set, and just the crazy hours. I mean, you were on set at like 6 in the morning ‘til 6 at night and it’s a very long day and basically just calling camera shots, you know, and–
MICHELLE: Well, there’s also no slow pacing in soaps. It’s constant like, “One take, one take, move–”
TERRY: “One take, one take. Move, move, move.” Yeah–
MICHELLE: You don’t get to sink your teeth into a moment or emotion.
TERRY: It wasn’t for me
TERRY: So, you know, and it would have been some good money. It would have been another fork in the road. So teaching – and no theater in New York needed any staff. We have a lot of great theaters but all the jobs are gone. So I went to Bill and said,“How bout teaching?” And he said, “I don’t need any teachers right now.” I said, “Well how bout I stay and watch you?” Cause the way to do– you don’t just go and teach. You have to watch. You have to apprentice. And this lineage is about that, that Bill sat at Meisner’s feet for many years before he started teaching and then, the people who taught for Bill — Maggie Flanigan, who’s a wonderful teacher who has a studio in New York now, and few others — you just sat in the back and took notes. So I just, “How bout I sit here until you tell me to go?” And that began like a 30 year relationship. And after awhile, in the last five years I was there, I was starting to get a little bit itchy and sort of, again, wanted to be in charge.
TERRY: And I had a great job there. Bill was an amazing boss and an amazing mentor, and wonderful students. But I just kinda wanted to create something on my own. And so, in 2015 I left and started this studio and man, that’s a scary thing to do, to go into business.
MICHELLE: It really is!
NICOLE: It certainly is.
TERRY: You know, it really is, you know, and I had a kid and I had a mortgage and I was there like, “If this fails, like, I don’t have a plan B.” I couldn’t– Bill wasn’t gonna take me back. It was like, “Goodbye forever.” So, it had to work. And it’s not like New York was saying, “Gosh, you know what we need more than anything right now: another acting studio.” Like, you know–
MICHELLE: (laughs) Yeah.
TERRY: It was glutted, you know. There’s so many people who call themselves acting teachers and some of them know what they’re doing and a lot don’t. But I did it and we’ve been really – god I hope that’s not the royal we – me, my staff, my faculty, & my students have really created something special and beautiful and we had to make a major turn when the virus hit but we did and we’re doing it online now. But we have a beautiful space in Sunset Park in Brooklyn. And that was one of the things I think that helped me to set myself apart from some of the other places was really strongly committing to a Brooklyn location and a Brooklyn identity. Cause pretty much everyone else was in Manhattan. And I think, if you know New York, Brooklyn’s got it’s own flavor–
MICHELLE: It’s definitely got its own flavor (laughing)
TERRY: You know, you cross the Williamsburg bridge and there’s a sign that says. “Fuhgeddaboudit!” You know, literally, so it’s not as Tony as Manhattan. Manhattan is great, I mean, you know. Manhattan’s Broadway, Manhattan’s The Met, Manhattan’s the museums. But Brooklyn’s got museums too and it’s got its own vibe. And plus no one can afford to live in Manhattan so a lot of my students already lived in Brooklyn. So doing that helped.
MICHELLE: Oh, smart.
TERRY: Yeah, I think so.
MICHELLE: That’s smart. Hey, look, I did the same. I lost my job and I had a newborn baby and I had to create some kind of employment and I created a talent agency out of a basement suite of my home with no money. I winged it everyday. And now we’re about to celebrate my 24th anniversary.
MICHELLE: So, but same thing: I think for me I catered to actors that weren’t really feeling supported.
MICHELLE: Cause I used to do a bit of modeling. I tried acting for, I don’t even want to say, but for like a month. Someone’s like, “Hey just try to act.” But I’m 6 feet tall. And so, 26 years ago to be 6 feet tall as a woman. I mean, they just looked at you like you were an alien. So I jumped to the other side, but again–
TERRY: Now you could do Game of Thrones!
MICHELLE: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
TERRY: Or you could have a few years ago.
NICOLE: Sci-fi stuff.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I know. What a great show. But, for me I remember talking to a lot of the people I knew in the industry and the big thing that was missing was care.
MICHELLE: And so the big thing that we work on at the agency – and I have an agency called Performer’s Management – is that we really do care and it’s about really nurturing the artist, really finding out what they want, and directing that career that way, and branding them right. Not just going, “Hey, you have to succumb to this work because it will make you money. And if you roll over and do a lot of CW, even though that’s not what you wanna do, at least then you’re gonna get your feet wet.” We don’t do that. We have actors that sometimes will absolutely do nothing to do with CW or nothing to do with mainstream network television. They only want to do cool indie films. And that’s their choice. We nurture them individually.
TERRY: Yup. That’s great.
MICHELLE: And so, yeah. But I know Nicole wants to get into Meisner with you cause she’s a fan.
NICOLE: I love Meisner so much. I took it back in after college, and I — it was such a wonderful experience for me. What did you take away from it the most? Obviously training for 30 years with William–
TERRY: Yeah, well, you know– I think I have to say why I started the training and then what it answered for me.
TERRY: Which was graduating from NYU– I mean, my god, what a great school, and I had great teachers and great classmates and was working, doing a lot of experimental theater I was sort of into and with people like Anne Bogart and — who’s now quite a famous director but at the time was just starting out and working at La Mama, which is the small little off-off Broadway theater that Hair the musical started at and Sam Shepard started there. And I had a wonderful teacher, an Israeli teacher named Rina Yerushalmi who was just a genius. She went to Carnegie Mellon and she had a small scene study class. She was my teacher at NYU and then after we graduated she had this ongoing once-a-week just keep-your-feet-wet, go-to-the-gym class and I– you know we did plays with her. She had a company at La Mama. And so one– for a while I was doing a scene and it was great. It was Bertolt Brecht. It was a play called Baal. And I nailed it. And she said, “Ok, now we’re gonna work on Mourning Becomes Electra, Eugene O’Neill play.” And I went, “Great, let’s do O’Neill.” And this is a scene between the brother and the sister, takes place in the living room. The father’s dead body is in a casket in the room. And it calls — you know, Mourning Becomes Electra, Electra is a Greek play – it calls for, like, Medea-sized emotion. And my brain understood, from a script analysis point of view, what the script needed, but my training at NYU, or me, just as me, had no road map. It was like driving a car without a GPS and that terrified me. Because how could it be that one week I knew what I was doing and was solid and the next week I was lost.
TERRY: And this was a critical moment in my life. I tell this story a thousand times a year because to me it’s what this training’s about and where so many actors are not helped by their training or don’t think about training or get the wrong training. Because the training I’d had at NYU started with scene study. And that’s how most American training, most Canadian, most British training starts right? I mean, maybe you do some sense memory if you’re doing the Method or animal exercises. But the real meat & potatoes is you get a scene. So freshman year at NYU I was doing Streetcar Named Desire and like, either figuring it out or not. But like, look at the performing arts, look at dance, look at music. There’s no way you would start the violin with Beethoven.
TERRY: There’s no way you would start ballet with Swan Lake.
TERRY: But most actor training starts with scene study.
MICHELLE: They started me on chopsticks. I used to play the flute.
NICOLE: Mary had a Little Lamb.
TERRY: But even before that you gotta have a C Major scale!
NICOLE & MICHELLE: Yes.
TERRY: And even before you do any dancing you have to do plies, and first position, second position. But there was – that was never in the training. And so of course I was not the only actor whose work was hit or miss. Many actors report that: “Sometimes I know what I’m doing. I pick up a script and it’s like, bingo I got it. Other times, I pick up a script and shit, my head gets it but like waaaah, where am I gonna find this?”
TERRY: So that terrified me cause imagine a dentist who one day you go to them and they know what to do, and the next they go “Huh, what’s a drill?”
TERRY: Right? But so many actors were that. And I said, my value was about A: quality, but B: consistency. I wanted to be able to do consistently good work because there’s no better feeling than going on set and knowing what the hell you’re doing.
TERRY: Right? It feels so good to go, “I’m set. I’m ready. Now we can play.”
MICHELLE: Yeah. Focus on the role not on the mental preparation.
TERRY: And just like, “I feel ready!” You know, it’s like, “I’m going on a trip. I’ve packed. I have my passport. I changed my money. I know what hotel I’m staying at. I’m not nervous. I’m excited.” And so that’s when I saw this guy Joel Rooks and he studied with Bill and that’s what sent me to Bill was to solve this problem of consistency. And I didn’t know anything about Meisner, which I don’t know how I didn’t hear about it. But at that time….. cause Meisner was alive at that time. Everybody who was big in acting in New York was alive, all the teachers. Lee Strasberg was alive. Stella Adler was alive. Uta Hagen was alive. And Meisner was alive. These are the four greatest teachers of the 20th century.
TERRY: And they were all working at the same time. And all producing amazing actors. Marlon Brando: Stella Adler. Al Pacino: Lee Strasberg. Robert De Niro: Stella Adler. Steve McQueen, Diane Keaton: Meisner. Like, every teacher had their own person to claim. But I’d never heard of Meisner. So, Bill explained it’s a two-year program and you start from the beginning. And, but I said, “You know, but Bill, as a student who graduated from NYU where would you have me start?” He said.“From the beginning.”
I said, “But you know, NYU??” And he looked at me like I had three heads and said, “From the beginning! And it’s not because you don’t know anything, but we don’t know where the holes are in you, where the gaps are.”
TERRY: So, that’s what — and Meisner who, not only was a member of the Group Theater who all those other people I just mentioned except Uta Hagen were members of – Strasberg, Stella Adler were members of the Group Theater. And the Group Theater was this amazing group of people who loved theater who made theater in New York. And then they saw Stanislavksi (the guy we’ve all heard about) come over from Russia with the Moscow Art Theater and blow everyody’s minds with the work doing Chekhov. Cause up to that point American acting was very bad. American Acting was like melodramatic. “You must pay the rent!” “I won’t pay the rent!” It was crappy!
Right? That’s what you would see on Broadway. And then we saw like, real life – they saw. And they said, “Wow we wanna be able to do that.” And so they started to study and talk to Stanislavski and that’s where the Method came. And then a year later, it changed. He started to get into more of the imagination. So, what this training does, the Meisner training that I love, is– Meisner was also a pianist. So he’s there like, “There’s gotta be an equivalent.” (I didn’t talk to him so I’m imagining this is his mindset, I’m making it up.) “There’s gotta be an equivalent of scales for acting.” Right? And I think that’s what the repetition exercise is.
TERRY: It’s that. It’s scales. Now, no one goes to a concert to hear scales. I don’t say, “Let’s go to Carnegie Hall and hear some scales.” But the more scales I do, the better I play Beethoven.
TERRY: And so the more I work on these fundamentals — like no one goes to the ballet to see a plie but if I do lots of plies and jumps and everything like that, then you give me choreography and it’s already in my body.
TERRY: So, this thing of the repetition exercise is so tiny but so profound and it’s a little building block. And Meisner just kept kind of expanding it. So it’s a– most acting classes are just ongoing. You go to like the Strasberg institute, there is a progression in some of the exercises but basically it’s relaxation, and then some kind of sense memory exercise and then a scene. And you do that whether you’re a beginner or you’re ten years in. So what it means is it’s like a gym membership. I don’t mean to insult the Method cause it’s useful. But it means that you can come and go in a way.
TERRY: And there’s no necessarily beginning, middle & end of the training, right? But this is a journey. It starts with something very small like juggling one ball, and then when you get good at that they add another ball and then that’s a little challenging and then that gets comfortable and then they add another ball. And by the end of the first year you got a lot of balls in the air but you’ve gotten there systematically just like you would if you were learning to play the violin or learning how to dance. So what the Meisner — this is such a long answer to your question, Nicole —
NICOLE: That’s okay. I’m enjoying the answer.
TERRY: I get excited but you know, what the Meisner technique did is it gave me a foundation.
TERRY: And it gave me a foundation that no other training I’d experienced – and I’d taken class at Strasberg, I’d snuck into Stella Adler’s classes while she was still teaching, I’d worked with Grotowski – I mean, I had all this exposure to amazing techniques, like a smorgasbord. So I had lots of tricks but no foundation. Nothing solid that I could say, “You give me a script, any script, and I know how to turn that script into behavior that’s authentic, that’s truthful, that’s imaginative, that honors the writer but also honors me as an artist.” And I think that’s what you should be able to say if you’re an actor.
MICHELLE: See everything you just said right then: that’s magic to my ears. Because the biggest thing I struggle with, with either development actors or more experienced actors is, “Show me your authenticity.” That’s it.
TERRY: Right. And so it starts with that. It starts just with — and what’s so brilliant about it is that it starts with listening. And you– for sure good acting has good listening in it. When you watch an actor (especially in film and television where you hopefully get to do take after take if they have a little bit of time and a little bit of money), a truly wonderful actor is able to stay fresh. They’re not just like pushing a button and the same thing comes out. Like, a lot of the same thing comes out but I’m putting my attention on you and I’m looking at your face and your facial expression and your eyes and what’s happening and I’m noticing that Nicole is nodding–
NICOLE: I’m engaged.
TERRY: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So I put my attention on you, rather than, “Oh shit, I hope I do a good podcast today and that Michelle’s happy and that I don’t fuck up.” You know, like, I’m not thinking about myself right now. My attention is not on myself.” That’s a good thing for acting. The worst place for your attention to be when you act is on yourself. Then you get nervous, you get self-conscious, “Oh my god, who’s in the audience, why am I wearing these underwear?”
NICOLE: “What’s my next line?”
TERRY: Yeah yeah yeah, “What’s my next line?” so if–
MICHELLE: You get very much in your head. Yeah.
TERRY: So I put my attention — exactly — so I put my attention on Nicole and then it comes into me, she comes into me, and I get to check out “Well, how do I feel about that?” And I go, “Well, there’s something sweet about her and I like her bangs and–
And, you know, I like that Toulouse Lautrec behind your left shoulder and, you know, and when I start to do that, things free up. So we could say that real listening is good, truthful responding is good. Like how I really feel, not my social response. And that’s a hard thing to get actors to re-learn. Because as babies and little infants, and you know as a mom too, children are totally free and they’ll say anything.
TERRY: You know, they run around–they run around naked. And they’ll say, “Mommy, that policeman smells like poop.” And, you know, you go, “Shh she’s giving me a ticket.” You know, and it’s like– but the kid’s free. And acting training — who’s doing the acting? The child in you is doing the acting. It’s — the child in you playing/telling grown-up stories. And so to retrain a person to not give their social response but their true response is part of what the training’s about as well. And then it also gets us to know how to, what we call crafting. But basically the work, the internal work we do to create the behavior that’s necessary, you know. So the script has certain demands, I — this thing I was just working on with Ayla calls for her to be upset because her sisters in this script were blaming her for killing her mother. Ok, well I gotta get that stuff cause when they say “action” if I don’t have it, it’s not gonna work. So, you have to be authentic but you also have to authentically have what the script is calling for.
TERRY: You know, if the script calls for joy, you better find some joy. And if the script calls for upset-ness, get the fucking upset-ness. And good training sets you up to know where that lives in you, free up the parts of you that are stuck – cause we all have blindspots, we all — You know, some people they don’t like conflict, some people don’t like intimacy, because it wasn’t safe, because some people can’t cry because they were told, “Be tough! Boys don’t cry. That’s weak.” And so, relearning, reintegrating, remembering all those parts that existed when we were born in our original state is also part of what the training– So there’s unlearning, and learning. And the — i mean it’s just, there’s no other approach to acting that for me, soup-to-nuts, works more thoroughly and completely and organically. And it’s not cookie-cutter. Like, it’s got this very precise set of exercises but it really releases the personality of each individual actor.
MICHELLE: But don’t you find– one of the things I struggle with sometimes I’ll meet an actor who I can tell had a very strict upbringing. So they are very– it’s like they have barbed wire around them, their vulnerability has not been exposed. And my first thing to them is, “You have to shed that. I need to be able to feel you.”
MICHELLE: “I need you to be vulnerable.” And–
TERRY: That’s scary. That’s scary, right?
MICHELLE: And as a kid you’re vulnerable, you’re honest.
MICHELLE: And as an adult, we do, we put up these walls, we–
TERRY: Everybody has defenses.
TERRY: you need defenses to be in the world. When you’re a baby, you’re born without defenses. but very soon, you start to discover, “What do I need to do to survive?”
TERRY: And then it gets worse when you get to school in the neighborhood or the family. Wherever the danger is, we are programmed, like from cavemen, to know how to survive. And part of surviving may mean constructing that barbed wire you just spoke about.
TERRY: So, I also– that’s why it’s unlearning. What’s good is you’re born with the stuff. You don’t have to go and find vulnerability, you’re born with it. There’s not a baby alive, even if you had a screwed up mother– right, cause I think stuff happens even when you’re in the womb.
MICHELLE: Of course.
TERRY: You know, that’s why they say, “Play music or…” You know, if the mother’s anxious, the baby picks up the anxiety. And if the mother’s thinking, “I love you and I welcome you and I can’t wait to be here.” That gets in there too, I believe, right? How intimate is that. But we all need defenses. But as an actor you need to be free.
TERRY: And so, there’s no actor who doesn’t have some kind of blindspot. And I would tell that actor, “Get some good training. But also, get a good therapist.”
MICHELLE: Well I wanna spend–
TERRY: No, I mean that.
MICHELLE: No, a hundred percent. I wanna spin that off, and I know you’ve already given some advice to actors. But what would be any of your general points that you really see constantly coming into your studio?
TERRY: K. Well, the first thing is I think you need to be clear about your goals. Because anything you’re gonna do is gonna be in service of something. And so if you’re not clear what you’re trying to create, meaning the life you’re trying to create, the trajectory you’re trying to create, then it’s just throwing paint at the wall.
TERRY: Right. So you can’t just say, “I wanna open a restaurant.” That’s not specific. Right? And you can’t just say— So when I meet actors in the process for studying at my studio– And we don’t just take everybody, which a lot– most acting studios, if you have a pulse and a Master Card, you’re in.
Because they need students. They got rent to pay. New York rent is expensive. And, you know, “Come join the party.” But the tagline of my studio is “Training the Passionate Actor Committed to Excellence.” So, passion: if you don’t have passion we’re not gonna be a good fit. If you can’t commit, which means if you say you’re gonna do it, it’s done. Don’t say you’ll try to come to my party. Say, “I’ll be there.”
TERRY: Right? If you’re trying to, you know, put on muscle and get a six pack, that’s a commitment, not a wish. Right? And as Dr. Phil says, “Some day’s not a day of the week.” Right? And I’m not a big fan of Dr. Phil but I like that statement. And excellence: that’s my north star. Right? So, if you’re not down to be the very best you can be, what’s the point? You wanna be a mediocre actor?
MICHELLE: Yeah, there’s the door.
TERRY: Right. Well, who– I mean, that’s not interesting to me. That’s a hobby.
TERRY: Right? For me this is a calling. I mean, I wouldn’t wanna go see a mediocre cancer doctor. I wouldn’t wanna get my car fixed by a mediocre mechanic. I wanna say when I move in a new place, “Do you know a mechanic and are they good?” I want someone who’s good and has good pricing. And even if they’re more expensive than some others, if they’re good and they’re gonna keep my car fixed and they’re not crooked, I wanna be with that person. Any good restaurant– we just, we’re on vacation in southern Massachusetts and I asked the owner of the Air BnB, “Where’s a great place to eat?” Cause I don’t wanna waste my time going to jerky places.
MICHELLE: No one wants to do anything subpar. Let’s–
NICOLE: We’re all about excellence.
TERRY: But most people settle for it. So–
MICHELLE: See, that’s– we don’t settle at all. And that’s, I mean, just to–
TERRY: But I’ll tell ya a lot of people do. Right, and–
MICHELLE: But even with us, like we are very specific who we take on the agency. We have over 70 submissions a week. I think we’ve interviewed one in two weeks. Cause, same thing, we wanna see excellence we wanna see something special. Show us who you are–
TERRY: Well that’s your brand.
TERRY: That’s your brand. And so if you start sending every Tom, Dick & Harry out for go-sees or whatever. And then they go, “Why did you send me that person?” Then they’re not gonna call you next time.
MICHELLE: No. Casting does know we have a high caliber. We got a good eye. So–
TERRY: Right. So my name is on the Studio. So if you’re gonna put my name on your resume, I’m not here to dick around. So the first thing is: clarify your goals.
TERRY: And be clear about that. And I’ll tell you, when I ask an actor what their goals are – cause that’s how we sort of decide whether we’re gonna work together, we have a conversation about training and what they wanna do – here’s what 90% of actors say, 90%, this is 1000’s of interviews – “I wanna be a working actor.” And my heart sinks.
TERRY: And that’s what 90% – I can’t tell you the 100–
TERRY: So many people say that. Now what are they really saying? They’re saying, “I would feel so good if I made my living and paid my expenses with acting money than with barista money.”
TERRY: And I’m just there like, “Where’s your dream, man?”
TERRY: But they’re afraid to claim it. Right? They’re frightened to claim it. So, the goal I like– and I’d say, “Well if you were a tennis player, and you were a kid and you loved Serena Williams, what would your goal be? Just to play tennis and make money playing tennis?” “No.” “Well, what would your goal be?” And we start to move towards, “I wanna be really good.” (That’s the excellence piece.) “I wanna be the best tennis player I can be.” “Ok, why? Why do you wanna be the best tennis player? So, you can go to the supermarket and say you’re the best tennis player?” “No!” “Well ,what does Serena do?” “She wins Wimbledon! She wins the Australian Open! She wins the French Open. She wins in the US Open.” Right? “So, ok, now let’s translate that to acting.” “I wanna be the best actor I can be with my DNA, my body, my thing, whatever it is. I’m not in competition with anybody. There’s only one me. So the best actor I can be, not better than Denzel, that’s not the point, just me, with what I have to offer, and skill. So talent: what I’m born with, I don’t have any say over that. And skill: what I train for.” Right? “So that I can play leading roles in projects I care about. Now, that may also mean I do a Marvel movie for money. That may also mean– you know, the ladder of how I get there: that’s strategy, marketing, working with a great agent like you, and like, making a 5- or 10-year plan. But the north star is I wanna be the best actor I can be, that’s something I’m in control of, so that I can play leading roles in projects I care about. Which means I get to say, ‘No.’” – The indie film person you were talking about.
MICHELLE: Yeah. And Terry I love what you just said because there are actors that do want specific roles but they do need to pay their bills. So yes, there are times we strategize and we take certain projects to give them that supplement income so that they can do these really gritty awesome films that they wanna do, that they don’t make much money off of.
TERRY: One hundred percent.
MICHELLE: That balance.
TERRY: Or voice-overs. Or commercials.
TERRY: You know, if I – I had this guy back in the day, his thing was puppets. He loved — he had a puppet theater in his loft in SoHo. Right? And that was his thing. But he did commercials so that he didn’t have to work 9-5. So he’d do one Colgate commercial, make $50,000. That paid the rent and bought a bunch of puppets.
MICHELLE: Yeah. You’re set for a year.
TERRY: Right. You know. So, so, the first tip is clarify your goals and claim them. And put them on your refrigerator and like, I’m– you know, not to be too wu wu but like —
MICHELLE: We’re big on wu wu–
NICOLE: We’re both very wu wu–
TERRY: You know, I mean like–
TERRY: Manifest that shit like fucking speak it–
NICOLE: –boards. Positive–
TERRY: Speak it into existence.
TERRY: Speak it into existence. Claim it.
TERRY: Right. It’s like Jim Carrey writing that check to himself for 10 million dollars for acting
MICHELLE. Yes, I love that story.
TERRY: Do that, man. Like what do you wanna be? So, I had– cause everything created started as an idea. Here’s an iPhone; this started as an idea! “What would happen if we like had a phone and it HAD, you know…” This isn’t what cell phones were like when they first came out. This is a whole leap forward. And that’s an idea.
TERRY: Everything created. Your agency started as an idea. This podcast started out as an idea. “Ayla…Terry…” And now we’re doing it! Right?
TERRY: Right. And I spent a year– in the year before I actually made the decision to create my studio, that was a year of action. And the way you achieve dreams is– the way you achieve is dreams plus action. Right?
TERRY: You need a dream, you need a vision, and you need to take action. Right? So let’s clarify the dream first. Then we can start to say, “Ok, what do we need to do to achieve that?” So one is therapy. One is good training. One is watch as much as you can so that you’re really an expert on the craft. Like, you need to know material. You need to know what’s out there, you need to know who did what. You need to watch the great performances of all time. I’m not talking about the business, I’m talking about the art.
MICHELLE: Mhm. Of course.
TERRY: Right. Um, work on your voice, work on your body. Do people-watching. Right? I think you had Larry Moss up there a while ago. And Larry’s — I’m a friend of Larry’s and a big fan of his, and he’s always saying people-watch. You go to a cafe for an hour and watch people and you’re gonna learn something about acting and characters. Right? Read biographies. Right? There’s so much you can do to like — And have a circle of people who are winners. Don’t hang out with losers. Don’t hang out with people who aren’t going anywhere. They can be your friends but like – it’s helpful to have a mastermind group of people who care as much as you care so you can help each other. I got an audition —
MICHELLE: Well, inspire each other.
TERRY: And inspire each other.
MICHELLE: Support each other. Lift each other up. Yeah.
TERRY: Let’s argue: what’s Al Pacino’s best movie? Right? “Some would say this.” “No, are you kidding? No way, no way, it’s gotta be Godfather I & II.” Those passionate arguments are fun. Right?
TERRY: And have a balanced life. Eat well, take care of yourself, take care of your body. Travel. I think travelling’s useful cause you get to sort of experience the world. So–
MICHELLE: Hopefully we get to do that again soon.
TERRY: It’s gonna happen! It’s gonna happen. Right? But, you know, because what are actors doing? They’re — artists are holding up the mirror to nature. So we gotta know as much about nature as possible which is what it is to be human in this world. And have empathy. Cultivate empathy. I mean, if you’re gonna play Donald Trump– I don’t know if you saw this ridiculous debate last night–
NICOLE: Oh, I think I could only watch 10 minutes of it last night.
TERRY: It was, it was, yeah, it was hard to take–
MICHELLE: I struggled. I had to turn it off.
TERRY: But here’s a guy. This is an interesting guy. And they’re already– you know there’s the Showtime thing that just came out with Brendon Gleeson playing Trump in the Comey story. But like, there’re gonna be a bunch of Trump movies. Whatever happens: whether he wins or whether he loses. Cause he’s a fascinating character. Fascinating. The narcissism, the ignorance, the arrogance, the lack of sensitivity where he’d say– You know, he goes to the cemetery with his chief of staff who’s from the army, who’s son is dead and buried from the army there, he goes, “I don’t get why people would like wanna do that, why would they wanna join…” Right? What an amazing character. But you can’t do that character from a place of thinking he’s a monster.
TERRY: You can’t do it from a place of thinking he’s disgusting. You have to make it up out of empathy. What happened to that little boy with his dad Fred Trump and his mother Mary Trump and his brothers and sisters growing up in Queens that led to this?
MICHELLE: So Terry I–
TERRY: And someone who does that is going to be – that’s cool.
MICHELLE: I love what you’re saying because there are characters that come out that are very dark. You know, we can talk about some of the famous murderers. You know, a lot of actors shy away from playing rapists or dark characters or anything especially based on true history moments. And, you know, someone does need to play these characters.
MICHELLE: So what do you advise your actors when they are brought into something like this? Like given a very heavy, politically-challenging role?
TERRY: Well, first of all– yeah, I mean, first of all you gotta make sure that the script is written with humanity. You can’t just like, you know, be putting babies into microwaves for no reason.
MICHELLE: Be Dahmer for no reason.
TERRY: Yeah, yeah. Even that has something happening right?
TERRY: So, what led to that. And be curious and try and find the humanity. But it’s gotta be written well.
TERRY: Because otherwise it’s just gonna be violence porn.
TERRY: And you don’t wanna be associated with a project like that, even if it’s a big paycheck.
MICHELLE: That’s what I always say to the clients. Look who’s writing it, look who’s directing it, look who’s behind it.
TERRY: And read it.
TERRY: You know, and if it’s not for you, the biggest power you have as an as actor is to say no. And no regrets. You know, just move on. But if it’s well-written– I mean you look at, you know, Hannibal Lector, Silence of the Lambs. I mean, now that’s an iconic sociopath played amazingly by Anthony Hopkins. But what a script.
TERRY: And you know Jonathan Demme, you know Jodie foster. Like everybody associated with that project: it’s a perfect storm of quality. And yet it’s horrifying. But it’s watchable because it’s — and it’s done with such ease, you know. I mean, Anthony Hopkins just–
MICHELLE: And grace.
TERRY: And grace, yeah, you know. But it’s horrifying.
NICOLE: Oh, it’s one of the most horrifying movies I can watch, yeah.
TERRY: Yeah but it’s so special. And so it’s gotta be– it’s gotta have quality associated with it, don’t just do it for the paycheck. And then you gotta locate inside yourself — you gotta be honest, no one’s a saint, no one is a saint. And people– you notice all the politicians and religious figures who we find out have dirty secrets are because they wouldn’t admit that they were dirty. So we had the governor of New York and it turned out he was seeing a hooker. We had the attorney general of New York and it turned out he was beating his wife or girlfriend. You have all these religious peoples and evangelicals who it turns out have little, you know, weird crazy things including recently Jerry Falwell Jr. and–
TERRY: Like why? Because they aren’t integrated as human beings. They don’t say, “You know what sometimes I like a little whatever on the side.” You know, like if they were more honest- cause the guy who was the governor of New York, what was he known for? His name was Eliot Spitzer. He was a law & order candidate. Right? So his thing was, “It’s gotta be right. I’m right.” And meanwhile he’s seeing these hookers in Washington. So, no one’s a saint. If you’re gonna play that, that’s gotta live inside you somewhere–
TERRY: Right, so I– Historically, you know when I grew up, parents used to hit their kids a lot. Now it’s not so cool. But I got hit. I got hit a lot. And my wife who’s Irish, she got hit a lot. So, and I don’t think my parents were abusive, it was just like what you did, right.
MICHELLE: It’s what you knew.
TERRY: You know, but when our son Henry was born, we made a vow that we were never gonna hit him. Like that’s just off the table. That’s not gonna happen. But boy, I could play an abusive father.
TERRY: And that would be cool because I’m willing to admit that that guy lives inside me. I don’t act on it.
TERRY: But I have an abusive father in me somewhere.
TERRY: You know, cause you can’t act what you don’t understand. So you can’t judge it.
MICHELLE: (overlap) I actually got the pleasure of meeting one of your actors: Sam Rockwell.
NICOLE: (overlap) How do you feel–
MICHELLE: He was doing a single shot in Vancouver. And he had just killed one of our clients and was burying her in the woods and here I am–
TERRY: Yeah yeah yeah.
MICHELLE: It was like, I don’t know, 8 degrees Celsius. It was freezing. We were in these dark woods. What an amazing man. But again, that was a very dark character that he played.
TERRY: Very dark, but also broken hearted.
MICHELLE: Yes, yes.
TERRY: That’s a broken-hearted fellow. He’s not just a bad guy.
TERRY: And that’s what Sam– Sam’s probably my best friend and we were just working together this weekend on something and stuff’s coming back. I know it’s coming back already in Vancouver but it’s coming back in London. Like the project’s are starting to flow.
TERRY: Which is nice. But you can’t play– what’s so great about Sam is that he finds the broken little boy, the hurt little boy– you know, his first big break was The Green Mile.
NICOLE: He was incredible in that.
TERRY: Right, which we worked on together, and that’s a guy who is– talk about a pedohile. He sexually molests little girls and then hurts them. Well, and then– he’s a badass and he’s a — and then he’s got like this Achilles heel, you know. And so we had to find the humanity. You can’t just go in and play a monster. That’s not — that’s a cartoon. That’s not real. And so you can hate Sam in that character and then feel sorry for him. And that’s what’s cool.
NICOLE: What advice would you give your actors who have played a really dark role and had to go to somewhere very dark and deep. How would you tell them to step away from that without too much residue?
TERRY: Yeah, well, first of all, it’s make-believe. We’re playing. It’s play. So, it doesn’t have to stick in there. It is — you know, that’s why they call it a play. Right? So, I don’t – there’s no evidence that feelings are toxic. Right? You know, rage isn’t toxic, shame isn’t toxic, sadness isn’t toxic. There’s nothing harmful about feelings. They’re just things that happen in your body. So I am not of the opinion that going there is bad for you. I’d say if you’re checking out trauma that exists inside you, you shouldn’t work on that. You should go to a therapist, get that healed and– You know, if you were sexually molested as a child and you have to play a part that’s like that, you may not be ready to play that part and that’s ok. Get the healing for that. Because everything can be healed, everything can be healed. Torture can be healed. You know, that movie Room where they were locked up–
MICHELLE: Oh yeah
TERRY:– You know for seven years. That happens to people and that can be healed. All stuff can be healed with the right therapy and patience. So you don’t wanna use– you know that thing of, “Use it! Use it!” – I’m so against that. I don’t believe in that. That’s why I’m so into the imagination. Not what was, but what could be.
MICHELLE: I love what you’re saying because I have heard so many coaches say, “Go to that dark place where you were raped, abused, beaten and..”
TERRY: Fuck no.
MICHELLE: And like you said, you’re waking up this demon that may not have been healed and then that’s why you are gonna have more of a residue when you wrap a role–
TERRY: Exactly, you gotta be able to turn it off when it’s time to turn it off. And it’s like, you know, it’s like being on the operating table, they open you up and then they go, “Ok, that’s a wrap.”
MICHELLE: They leave ya.
TERRY: And like, nothing got stitched up. So, so that. And let’s say it’s all play and it’s all make-believe but it’s still very dark. Like, let’s say it’s a play.
TERRY: So eight shows a week, you’re playing a very very dark character. I think you need to go bowling.
I think you need to, you know, you need to switch it up, you need to like–
NICOLE: Have a dance party or something.
TERRY: Have a dance party. Go for some ice cream. Don’t live there.
TERRY: You know, “the middle path,” as Buddha says, you know. So that’s what I would say. First of all, it’s not dangerous, especially if you don’t go to the trauma place.
TERRY: Right? And then switch it up. But it’s not – you know some people have like a ritual for like unzipping an invisible costume and sort of shedding — whatever you need. I don’t need that personally. I just like change the channel. Because this too shall pass. I used to do– I’m really into therapy for myself, you know, and for my students and I love group therapy. Group– and so I do individual and group. And I sort of bounce back and like, “Oh I get him all to myself and then I’m in the family and I have to fight for the food and, you know, learn about relationships.” And so, I had this brilliant group therapist I was with for 15 years. He died when he was 90 about 10 years ago. And I’d have group just before I taught. So sometimes in group, cause you regress – when you go to group, no matter how old you are, what happens is it just kinda is like taking acid, you just like regress. And so all of a sudden like the 3 year old in me is falling apart is screaming is like feeling the worst feelings ever like the worst. And then it would be like, “Ok, time to go.” cause we end on time. And I leave and I feel bad and I hate everybody and like– that didn’t happen all the time but sometimes it happened. And I get on the subway and half an hour later I’d be teaching and I’d teach the best class I’d ever taught.
MICHELLE: Cause you were raw?
TERRY: I don’t know if i was – maybe, partly – but also just like “Oh, that was then, this is now.”
TERRY: Like I didn’t have to drag that thing in and go, “Ok guys” – cause I had a job to do! Right? So, the capacity of human beings is so big, you know. And you can do so much. So, I don’t, you know, there’s no victim in acting.
MICHELLE: No, I love that. And I think it’s very cool that you’ve adapted during this time where we all have adapted as human beings during COVID and have taken your school online. So does that mean for you it opens up to wonderful Canadians doing school?
TERRY: I had a bunch of Canadians this summer!
MICHELLE: That’s amazing! See, but now you’re branching out because you’re online.
TERRY: I did, I had, you know– yeah and that’s– you know, I mean when this thing happened back in March, I was there like, “Shit we’re gonna have to close the doors.”
TERRY: I just didn’t believe you could teach acting in this medium and I said – you know NYU was going online. I was there like, “That is insane.” I was so mad and so doubtful. I was like– and I just said, “You can’t do it! No way can you do it.” And then, I– “Well, maybe you can.” And I remembered that I coached– I did 9 seasons of Shameless on Skype with Emmy Rossum.
MICHELLE: Mhm. One of my favorite shows. Emmy’s great.
TERRY: Every – I mean, every – we did, you know, we did the pilot audition in person but once she got the part she lived in LA, I was here, and every Sunday when they were shooting, I’d have the script, I’d have read it and we’d go through her scenes and then she’d shoot what we did. And so, “Oh yeah.” And I’ve done Skype with Sam, and Facetime when he’s not around. And Zac Efron & Sacha Baron Cohen and a bunch of people so, “Ok that part works but I don’t know, teaching? Let’s see.” So it worked. So now it seems like, yeah I can’t wait to get back in person. I don’t know when that’s gonna happen. But it seems like there’s gonna be an online division of my studio so that folks who can’t come to New York or they don’t get the visa or they got families in Canada or whatever, Canada, Israel, wherever, can do the work.
MICHELLE: That’s amazing. You’ve gone global. I’m ready to have therapy with you after listening to you talk for an hour. I need some group therapy, Terry.
TERRY: It’s worth it.
MICHELLE: I bet.
NICOLE: My question is, what advice would you give your younger self, either getting into acting or getting into the industry?
TERRY: I knew- you told me you were gonna ask me that question so I- and then I was just listening before we spoke to what Matt Del Negro said……just….That song “Climb every mountain, forge every stream,” is what came to me.
TERRY: Like, just do everything. Don’t like— life is short and there’s so many opportunities and don’t take yourself so seriously and try to have fun. And I put my arm around my younger self and — In the play Orphans, which is also a wonderful movie, this older character Harold puts his arm around one of the young boys and says, “I’m just giving you an encouraging squeeze.” And you know, I would say, “It’s gonna be ok. It’s gonna be ok.” Because there was– there have been– you know, I suffer from anxiety, I worry, you know I sound very–
NICOLE: Me too.
TERRY: I’m having fun with you guys and acting like an expert but I freak out. I freak out and if it can go wrong, I’m worried it’s gonna go wrong. And of course most stuff has worked out. Most stuff has worked out. So I would put around that younger self and say, “It’s gonna work out. It’s gonna be ok. Somehow it’s gonna be ok. And have some fun. You know, eat some ice cream and ask that girl out and go to Europe.” A lot of which I did but don’t worry if it’s gonna like lead to the thing. Because life is to be enjoyed.
MICHELLE: Yeah Nicole and I constantly say–
NICOLE: The journey.
MICHELLE:–things don’t always come to you as you hope they do.
MICHELLE: But when they present themselves make sure your eyes are open to accept them and see that the path may not be what you thought it is but it might be a better path.
TERRY: Yeah. Yeah yeah yeah. I mean I applied to Yale not once but twice and my whole life was about getting into Yale for directing. They only took four people a year.
TERRY: So I had to get in. And then I applied again and I, you know, I thought— and I didn’t get in. And I thought my life was over.
TERRY: And that would have been a different route. And this is the route that happened and I wouldn’t change a thing. Including the applying and the not getting in.
MICHELLE: I was doing kids merchandising for a store and I lost my job when I was pregnant. And then I went to work for an ad agency, a creative agency, lost my job again when I delivered my baby and it threw me into this. So, like you said, it’s sometimes these doors shutting, it means another window’s opening or a better door is opening. And it’s ok.
TERRY: 1000%. 1000%
MICHELLE: Well, it was such a pleasure to chat with you today. Like I said–
MICHELLE: I wanna come to group therapy. You are amazing. You’re such an inspiration by how you speak–
TERRY: Thank you.
MICHELLE: –and so passionate.
TERRY: Well, I’m not a therapist. I just wanna be clear. I’m not a therapist–
MICHELLE: We get that. (laughter)
TERRY: But I don’t think you can be an actor unless you really understand yourself and human psychology. So I spent a lot of money & time trying to understand myself and understand other people cause that’s how you play characters with empathy and humanity. Right.
MICHELLE: 100 %
TERRY: But I’m not doing- I’m not doing therapy in my class, that’s– I send them to therapy.
MICHELLE: Send me to the right therapist, Terry.
NICOLE: Give us the recommendations.
MICHELLE: I’m ready.
TERRY: Yeah, ok.
MICHELLE: Thank you so much.
TERRY: Well it’s so nice, it’s so nice. You guys are easy to talk to and very friendly and very pleasant. I had a good time, thanks.
MICHELLE: We had a great time.
NICOLE: Such a pleasure to talk to you.