Tune into a great conversation between Terry Knickerbocker and thoughtful Bryan Levenson of Strong Skills. They talk following your north star, staying grateful, and working hard to reach your goals.
Speaker 5: You are listening to Intentional Performers with Brian Levenson where we talk with experts of craft about their journey and what they have intentionally done to be their best self. As we talk with them, the hope is that we uncover intentional gems that you can use in your life. Now, let’s kick it over to Brian to introduce this week’s guest.
Brian Levenson: Hello everyone. Welcome back to the Intentional Performers podcast. I am Brian Levenson, excited to have you with us for another great episode today, but before we get to today’s guest, I just want to welcome you and tell you a bit about myself and tell you how you might be able to help us out here at the podcast. So, I work as an executive coach and a mental performance coach. That’s my day job. I get to work with athletes and executives, leaders, coaches, C-suite executives, and I love what I do for a living. I love coaching them. I love working with them, and if you’re interested in learning more about what I do and how I serve people, feel free to email me [email protected] We’d love to connect with you, chat with you, see how I might be able to be in service. Also, if you enjoy today’s conversation, go over to iTunes and write us a review. It really helps us as we continue to expand our reach.
Brian Levenson: It helps people find us. Go over there, write us a review. We’d be forever grateful. And lastly, if you could go on social media, if you’re a Twitter person, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, wherever it is your social, if you could share these conversations. I can’t tell you how many people have found us via social media, so please share these conversations with your networks, and it again helps us as we continue to try to build this thing out.
Brian Levenson: Now to today’s guest. Terry Knickerbocker was somebody who I was connected to from a former guest, actor Matthew Del Negro, and Mat said, “Hey Brian, I think Terry’s somebody who you’re going to love chatting with.” He is the studio director and founder of Terry Knickerbocker Studio in Brooklyn, New York, and for the past 30 years, Terry, he’s acted, he’s directed, he’s coached, and he’s produced art with all kinds of incredible people.
Brian Levenson: You’re going to find quickly that Terry, some of his time is spent directing, some of his time is spent coaching and teaching, and even acting. So, he wears multiple hats. After he graduated from NYU, which has an illustrious history of acting, and all kinds of amazing people in theater have gone through NYU, Terry trained as an actor and a teacher with Bill Esper. He’s going to talk about Bill in this conversation and how he mentored him. And, Terry worked alongside Bill for 25 years, and you’ll notice throughout this conversation that Terry has been mentored and values mentoring others. He is somebody who cares deeply about the human spirit, the human connection, and he’s a deep, deep soul that’s done a lot of inner work to try to figure out who he is, how does he want to show up, the complexities of humans, himself included, and how he wants to continue to mentor his six-year-old son and the people that he coaches.
Brian Levenson: Some of the actors that he’s worked with and trained include Sam Rockwell, Chris Messina, Boyd Holbrook, Natasha Lyonne, Leslie Bibb, Emmy Rossum. If you’ve watched Shameless, I’m a big fan of Emmy in that show, and many, many more actors. He’s a past recipient of the Drama League of New York’s Directing Award Fellowship for Emerging Directors. And look, I could go on and on and read more and more about his bio and everyone that he’s touched along the way, and all of his accolades and everything that he has done, but this conversation is much more about what he does and much more about who he is and who he is constantly trying to become and how he wants to show up. And so, Terry is vulnerable in this conversation. He’s honest, he’s truthful, and he cuts to the core of who he is and how he’s become the person that he is today.
Brian Levenson: So, I know you’re going to love this conversation with Terry. Without further ado, I present to you Terry Knickerbocker.
Brian Levenson: Terry, so excited to connect with you. We were connected by Matt Del Negro, a former podcast guest, and just a beautiful soul Matt is and a curious guy. I loved learning his story and how he found acting. Acting wasn’t something he grew up with, and he was really into sports, and how he found acting. You probably have the coolest last name of anybody I’ve interviewed. I’m excited to chat with you for that. It’s such a unique last name, especially being in New York with the New York Knickerbockers. But-
Terry K.: Yeah, doing terribly right.
Brian Levenson: I was reading this morning about them like, “Oh, do we fire this person? Do we fire that person?” It seems like an annual question that they’re often asking. And, I was actually talking to someone earlier this morning about how New York is really a basketball town, how they love the Knicks and support the Knicks even when you know there’s not much to support. But, we’re here really we’re going to talk more about acting and also about what you do and who you are. I love this podcast because I get to talk to people in all kinds of professions. I don’t want to limit it to sports even though a lot of my background has been in sports. So, where I’d love to actually start is to find out how you got into acting, how you got into this world and when did that start for you? And, why? Just take me back and give me some context as far as your journey.
Terry K.: Absolutely. You know, just on the name, I got teased a lot about my name growing up. It’s a long name. It’s 13 letters. A lot of forms only take 12. I have to spell it because everyone starts it with the letter N even though it starts with a K. I used to hate my name. Now, I have a son and he’s got my name, and he doesn’t seem to have a problem with it, but it was making me think about failure and how bouncing back from failure and hardship is really what makes us resilient human beings. I’m going to try and weave that in with the question you just asked because kids get teased a lot, and you get bullied a lot. I was totally an underachiever growing up. Every report card would say, “Terry has all kinds of potential, but if he’d only apply himself.” And, I was a pretty sad little kid, I must say. So, it’s amazing to me that I can say I have a joyful life now and I’m completely dialed in to high achievement. It’s just amazing how the polarity of that works.
Terry K.: My parents, to their great credit, I grew up in Brooklyn Heights, and my dad loved classical music and my mother loved the arts, and they took me to a lot of shows. And then, when we were seven, we moved to Boston, and Boston was a place that a lot of Broadway shows back then would try out before they came to Broadway, sort of like farm teams. So, I was taken to the theater and to light opera, meaning something called Gilbert and Sullivan, HMS Pinafore, Pirates of Penzance. These really obscure but fun clever British shows and classical music, and museums from an early age. And, both my parents really believed fundamentally in the arts, although both of them were lawyers. That’s where they met. They met in law school. So, that early exposure to the arts was everything for me.
Terry K.: I don’t think I ever thought I was going to be an actor, but I loved it and I also had a fascination with religion. My mom is Jewish, came from an Orthodox Jewish family, and my dad was high Episcopalian, which is a polite version of Catholicism in a way. I don’t know how they ever got together, but they did. So, I went to church as a kid and was fascinated with all the rituals, with the incense and with the costumes. Every day from fifth grade to eight grade, I would do mass in my room. It wasn’t because I was thinking about Jesus or God or anything like that, it was because I loved the costumes, I loved the rituals. I’d take Ritz crackers and pretend they were the wafers, and I’d take water in a cup and I had a mirror in my room and put a towel around me.
Terry K.: And, in a way that was some of my first acting and that has a lot to do with ritual, which acting has a lot to do with in plays.
Brian Levenson: Hey Terry, I want to pause you for a second. I want to go back to that teasing element because something got sparked for me that perhaps we get teased for when we’re young also might be some of our genius. And I’ve never-
Terry K.: Absolutely.
Brian Levenson: I never thought about that until you mentioned it and I’m just curious to play on that and pull all that thread because uniqueness, different, being different, those are things that are not great for an eight-year-old or even an 18-year old a lot of times in high school, but those are the things that really separate people when they become adults is what is their secret sauce? What is their superpower?
Terry K.: Absolutely.
Brian Levenson: Can you just go back to the younger version of you and what were some of the things that people were saying to you, other than your last name? What else were they acknowledging or recognizing that perhaps is actually maybe part of what makes you great at what you do now?
Terry K.: I’m almost a tearful right now because you reminded me of one of my greatest mentors who was a group therapist named Dr. Louis Ormont, who died in 2010. I was in his groups here in New York for about 15, 18 years. He said once that “The very thing that plagues you, that Achilles heel, is the foundation of your genius.” You almost quoted him just then. Of course, that’s a hard thing to keep in mind or even to think about when you’re an eight-year-old kid or a six-year-old kid growing up. There was no amazing trauma in my life. I had a lot of medical surgeries when I was growing up. I had some kidney issues, so I had maybe six or eight surgeries back then, which made me very frightened and fearful about stuff. And, I wasn’t a very physical kid. I know you have a real sports background. I love watching sports, and I used to pretend to be a pitcher and throw tennis balls against the wall. But, I got picked on because I went to schools where sports and masculinity were big things and I was into art. So, I’d get picked on, I’d get bullied, I’d get pushed around.
Terry K.: I remember my mother hired some guy to gave me boxing lessons as a self-defense thing, and I just didn’t have an affinity for it, so it did nothing for me. I remember when I was in ninth grade, these sophomores … I went to a boarding school … came up and surrounded me and gave me a wedgie. I was naked on the football field in ninth grade, and they just ran away. Kids do that kind of stuff. There’s a crazy story when I was, gosh, maybe eight or nine. “Mary Poppins”, the movie, the original, was playing in Boston in an area that’s now cool but back then was not called the Combat Zone. It was a rough area, and I had been to church that day so I was all dressed up in my red blazer and my tie, and my mom left me on line and gave me the money for tickets and then said, “I’ll pick you up after the movie.” The movie was sold out, and so I’m there in the Combat Zone with $5.00 and not knowing quite what to do.
Terry K.: Of course, there were no cell phones there. All of a sudden, five kids in hoodies came up to me, and three of them grabbed my arms and pinned me back … These are 12 year olds. The other one took out of his hoodie pocket this crinkly tinfoil package, which he opened up which was an apple pie. It was so weird. He just rubbed it all over my face and my jacket and my shirt. I was mugged with an apple pie. It was crazy. So, that kind of thing made me very fearful, and I think what it’s developed for me now is a tremendous sensitivity to the underdog and to help people find their power in the work, find their voice, find their aggression.
Terry K.: You’ve probably heard of this thing called learned helplessness, which is a way people just learn in their upbringing to not know what to do and they go limp. And so, sometimes in an exercise where they’re starting to talk from let’s say a victim place like, “You’re hurting me or you’re making me sad,” or whatever, an acting exercise, I’ll just say, “Stamp your foot. Do something with your body that has some aggression in it.” And, all of a sudden by doing that, or, “What does your hand want to do?” And, they’ll be shaking their hands forward and making fists. The body’s already doing it, right? So, consciously they’re going, “You’re hurting me and I feel weak.” Their body is manifesting this incredible power. I’m so interested in helping people find their voice because I think I was voiceless back then, and maybe that’s a little bit of that idea of genius that you’re talking about.
Brian Levenson: I’m curious, as you’re talking, what your definition for toughness is, because those bullies probably thought that they were being tough, but I’d be curious to get your thoughts on what is toughness?
Terry K.: You know, it makes me think of that wonderful human potential leader Brene Brown and her book, “The Power of Vulnerability”, and how we associate tears with weakness. But actually to me, that’s strength and resilience and tremendous power. I’m more interested in power than toughness, I think. But, I think you do need grit to go forward and you need a certain kind of resilience so that even when things are hard, you still get up in the morning and do your thing every day. It calls for that, for sure. So, I think it has to do with getting up again like Rocky.
Brian Levenson: Did you have siblings growing up?
Terry K.: Yes, I have a sister. She’s five years younger than me. We’re very different. She has made her mark in human resources for a lot of advertising agencies. She’s been a vice president and that sort of thing. She has a couple of kids and … Lovely person.
Brian Levenson: And, what did mom and dad do growing up?
Terry K.: Yeah, they were lawyers. They met at Cornell Law School in Ithaca. My dad is a Republican, was a Republican. He died in 2010, and was a tax lawyer. And, my mom was a democratic labor lawyer and was very passionate about human rights and picket lines and unions and things like that.
Brian Levenson: What were some of the values that they passed down to you?
Terry K.: The two that come to mind right now–my mom, so she was a Jewish woman who in the 50s went to law school. There was a lot of discrimination against women and Jews back then, and there were certain law schools that wouldn’t even take a Jew. It just wasn’t done. So, she went to Cornell. They took her, she did well. When she got out, she had a list of a hundred firms that she was going to apply to. That’s a lot. 99 of them said no. It was on the hundredth that she finally got her first job. So, I love that story and it makes me emotional thinking about it because of her incredible modeling of persistence, courage, and stick to it-iveness and belief in herself, because a lot of other people would give up, which of course comes up in acting all the time.
Terry K.: Even what you said, our mutual friend Matt Del Negro, his podcast is called “10,000 No’s”. What do you do with failure? How do you bounce back? How do you have courage? The New York Knicks, are they ever going to come back? You got to believe. So, that was an incredible value. My dad was just meticulous. He was a numbers guy, tax lawyer. He was fascinated with taxes and fascinated with things like crossword puzzles. He would do the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, which gets more and more difficult as you go through the week, and he would completely fill it out perfectly every day. So, he had a fascination with language. He had a fascination with precision in language, which I really care about, and just doing things right, doing them well. So, both those things related to excellence and persistence and heart. There was a lot of love in the family.
Brian Levenson: I love that you brought up heart because we’ve been talking for 15 minutes and you’ve already referenced your own emotions twice. So, I’m curious for you, where do you feel emotion typically? Where do you feel it in your body? When you talked about the “I’m like tearing up or I get emotional talking about it,” can you locate where you feel that in your body?
Terry K.: You know, Brian, you’re a very good listener and I appreciate that. And, I find that moving. There’s nothing we want more as human beings than to be understood and to be seen. So, that feels good and I feel that emotionally. I often feel it in my chest. There is no feeling that isn’t connected to the body, and there’s no body part that’s not connected to feelings. They’re very integrated. So, often in my chest and my torso, but really all over. It’s an interesting question.
Brian Levenson: Yeah, I’ll share just myself. When you’ve been revealing emotion, I feel it as well. And so for me, I felt it up my spine and chills and then I feel it in my [crosstalk 00:20:39]-
Terry K.: How interesting.
Brian Levenson: Even right now, I feel my arms, the hair sticking up as we talk.
Terry K.: That’s great. Now, I’m feeling that.
Brian Levenson: Yeah, the interesting thing about the spine is for me I also have recognized that that’s where my anger … it will rush up my spine, as well.
Terry K.: Do you know about Dr. John Sarno?
Brian Levenson: I don’t.
Terry K.: Oh my God. So, I was just taking notes today about things we might talk about and just things that I care about. There’s a guy named Dr. John Sarno. He died recently, but he was a back surgeon and did a lot of back surgeries at NYU. And, then started to come up with the hypothesis that as he talked to his patients about their feelings, their back symptoms went away, and so he stopped doing surgery and wrote a book called Healing Back Pain: The Body Mind Connection. He was Howard Stern’s back doctor, Larry David, and basically had the idea … and we have this expression, “You’re a pain in my neck or in my back,” that unexpressed and unexperienced rage was the source of almost all back pain.
Terry K.: And, it is real back pain. It’s not fake back pain. When they say that you’re having a psychosomatic experience, people think, “Oh, that’s in your mind.” No, you’re actually having an experience. You actually are having back pain. That’s why you’re at the doctor. But his idea was that if you could feel all your feelings and resolve them, that back pain would go away, and that got born out again and again and again. It is my philosophy that people who feel all their feelings tend not to get sick. And, people who deny certain feelings, that energy has to go somewhere, and it can make you sick. It can give you cancer. It can give you jaw tension. It can do all kinds of stuff, and it’s real stuff.
Brian Levenson: It’s just such an interesting thought. I’ve asked others if they feel anger up their spine, and I wish I could tell you that I’ve mastered emotional anger, and I certainly haven’t, and I don’t even think I really want to because I think that’s part of what makes me me is the ability to fight and stand up for what I care about, but it can hijack me sometimes and cause me to say things that I don’t want to say. I’ve gotten much better at managing it, but even when I was younger, I was a little scrapper and I felt it. It would be an adrenaline shot up my spine. Like you, I was a defender of the underdogs. I was always small. No one really messed with me too much because I was pretty fearless and I was a little scrappy dude, but I’m also thinking of my grandma, who was a Holocaust survivor and went through all kinds of trauma and lost family members, and always had back pain and always had back trouble.
Brian Levenson: She lived this amazing life because she lived a life of gratitude. The story she would pass down to us was how grateful she was to come to the US and start a new life, and how lucky we were to have family. So, that was what she focused on, but I can’t help but think like, “Yeah, but she also went through this real trauma, like real. She saw some real stuff and lost some really important people in her life.” And, I’m now thinking about her as you talk about the back because she was often hunched over. She had back pain throughout her life. Anyway, it’s just interesting as we’re going down that rabbit hole.
Brian Levenson: I want to go back to-
Terry K.: I just want to make a distinction. You said managing your anger. I want to say that I make a complete distinction between feelings and actions. So, when you said you say things you don’t want to say, that’s not about anger. That’s about an action that you’re taking as a result of the anger.
Brian Levenson: That’s right.
Terry K.: That phrase anger management is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard in my life. You don’t need to manage your anger. You need to manage your actions, which include verbal actions. So, you’re pissed off but you don’t push the person down the stairs. You’re pissed off, you’re having a fight with your wife, and you don’t attack her. You may want to, and it’s good to know that you want to, but you restrain yourself and that makes you in command of yourself.
Brian Levenson: I love that and thanks for catching me on that because I agree, the interpretation of the emotion and what you do and what you decide not to do.
Terry K.: I’ll tell you, it’s fascinating. I just got to tell you, there are a lot of people I see in my class who won’t let themselves experience anger because they got into a lot of trouble as kids. They did a lot of bad things as kids, and they got the message that the anger and the actions were fused together, and they have this fear, this terror, that if I ever really felt and expressed my anger, it would be like a nuclear bomb. So, they’re stuck. Literally, it’s like a key on their keyboard that won’t play. Right? And, as actors we have to be able to play all the feelings. That takes a lot of time to unpack.
Brian Levenson: That’s so good.
Terry K.: It is not easy.
Brian Levenson: That’s so good. I have an executive client that I saw yesterday and same thing. She’s just buried that stuff, and as a result holds herself back from taking action when action is required and action is necessary. We’ll get more into the actors that you work with because I’m fascinated by it. This has been really fun, and we’re just getting started. But, when for you did acting become real? When were you like, “Okay, this is something I want to pursue a little further”?
Terry K.: So, it goes back to … I did a play in eighth grade. That was fun. Then, didn’t do much and then did the High School Musical at my school. I went to a boarding school in Rhode Island called Moses Brown, a Quaker School. Fascinating place. And, did West Side Story. Had a small part in that. I like to sing and that was fun, but I didn’t really think … I loved that experience, and one of the things I loved about it was the community aspect of it. When you do a play, you form a family and you’re together for so many hours doing this creative thing together and you really form incredible relationships, cast parties and bonding. Again, I was this underachiever, so I was not particularly interested in going to college, although my parents wanted me to and that’s what you’re supposed to do, and they were educated.
Terry K.: So, I didn’t even send in most of my college applications. And my dad, besides having a corporate job, was also on faculty at Boston University Law School, and so pulled some strings to … very late in the game, like May, June … get me in to BU. So, I went to BU and I signed up to be a French major because I spoke French pretty well, but I wasn’t interested in it and I literally went to all my classes once. And then meanwhile, I saw an audition notice for this very obscure French operetta, that I guarantee you no one’s heard of, called the Grand Duchess of Gerolstein. I mean, I don’t know why I saw it where I saw it, but they were auditioning and I went in and I auditioned, and I got a part in the chorus playing a soldier by this group, a club called the Boston University Savoy Arts, which was a Gilbert & Sullivan … I mentioned that before … club just for freaks.
Terry K.: I got that part, and then found a family and did a lot of shows with them and also at Harvard. There was a big Gilbert & Sullivan subculture in Boston. That got me started, and then I started to do plays. I did some musicals, and about four years after doing that … BU kicked me out. They kicked me out. They said, “He’s not going to classes.” So, in my freshman year, I was kicked out. I was working. I worked at a-
Brian Levenson: What was dad’s response when you got kicked out?
Terry K.: It’s curious to me why you mentioned my dad as opposed to my mom. I think my mom felt worse about it than he did.
Brian Levenson: I just mentioned because he pulled the strings to get you in.
Terry K.: Yeah, yeah. That’s a great point. You know, I think they were embarrassed and confused and bewildered because I was running home … They didn’t know I wasn’t going to classes, so they’d say, “How’s school?” And, I’d say, “Oh, it’s just fine.” Then, “Please come and see my shows,” which they would do. But, they assumed I was going to school and I would run home to try and intercept the mail from BU with all these grades of incompletes and fails, which I did rather successfully but at one point I think they called or I didn’t get that particular piece of mail and they discovered the truth. I think they were very disappointed.
Brian Levenson: Was your sister a high achiever? Was she someone that played … You said you guys are different.
Terry K.: No, no. Not then, no. She’s incredibly intelligent, but also not a high achiever. Went to a couple different colleges, like a community college. She went to Gautier College in Maryland. Near you, actually, and left after one or two years and then went to some others. So, no. We’re both late bloomers. I was doing acting in Boston. There’s a lot of amateur community acting that you can do back then, and it was just delicious. So, I’d work at this record store and then go to rehearsal. I pretty much got everything I auditioned for.
Brian Levenson: You loved it.
Terry K.: I loved it.
Brian Levenson: This is what your passion was.
Terry K.: I did, but I wasn’t quite putting it together that this was a life. But, it became clear to me … I did this play called “Macbett”, which is by a guy named Ionesco, a French writer. He wrote a played called The Bald Soprano, and it’s his version of Shakespeare’s … We don’t say the name of that play in acting because it’s bad luck, but we call it the Scottish play. But, I think if you hear me say Macbett, you know what I’m talking about. And, I had a good part, but I realized that my work in it was hit or miss, and it became very clear to me that if I wanted to pursue this and I did, I needed to get training because I’d never had an acting lesson, which is what most people are about. Kids who do acting, they don’t necessarily need acting lessons.
Terry K.: There are camps you can go to, Stagedoor Manor is a very famous one where a lot of stars have gone to as kids, but you can be in the school play and not have had an acting lesson. You can’t do that with the violin or with ballet, but acting, because we’re human beings, we have the ability to mimic people. We know what stories mean. We don’t necessarily need an acting lesson to do stuff, which is why some kids do so well in their first movie. So, I decided to apply to NYU. It was the only place I applied to. I took the train down to Boston, did my auditions, and got in. NYU was, and is, one of the premier actor training places in the world. And, that changed everything. That just changed everything.
Brian Levenson: You know, Terry, it’s fascinating. First of all, my high school, we did Gilbert & Sullivan plays, so I’m familiar with what you’re talking about. I went to a high school that had a really good … It was a public school, but really a good theater department. There’s actors now. One of my good friends is right down the street from you in Brooklyn, and he’s acting. He’s been on the podcast. His name’s Danny Binstock. Another woman, Kelen Coleman, who’s been on a bunch of TV shows. And, Ben Feldman, who’s a couple years older than me has been on a bunch of TV shows. Our high school from Maryland, it’s not like we’re outside in New York, produced a lot of actors.
Brian Levenson: When I was in sixth grade, I did a play and I remember I was good. I was good because I was fearless. I think some of the people that I worked with, and we’ll talk about how acting is a team sport, which I don’t think I understood when I was in sixth grade, but I would improvise, I would just go with it, and I would get laughs and I would get cheers. But for whatever reason, one of my good friends, Danny, he was also a lacrosse player, hockey player, ran cross country. He was a stud athlete, too. Good looking guy. He was the guy that could do everything just really well, but acting was his passion. I don’t know why I never went with it, because I think I looked at my identity as an athlete and I was a good athlete when I was in sixth grade, but the reality was I’m now 5’6. I’m not the greatest athlete on the planet to make up for being 5’6.
Brian Levenson: I was scrawny and little. I look back and I’m like, “Man, I would have loved to act in high school.” I would have just loved it. I’m wondering what would have made me turn toward that path, because I know if my parents had said it, I would have said, “Nope, I’m not doing that.” I was the kid that if you told me to go right, and I thought I could go left, I would go left. Basketball was a good example. Basketball was my sport because I was small. I was like, “Yeah, let’s roll out the ball. Let’s play. Let’s make it happen.” I had that feistiness, but I look back and I’m like, “Man, I loved acting.” Even this is a form of it. I love the idea of performing. I do a decent amount of public speaking. I love the impact you can have and storytelling, the way that you can convey emotion and story. I love watching people on stage. I love watching movies and TV shows.
Brian Levenson: I love the acting, and I’m just thinking for myself and I’m curious because I’ve got two kids, and I’m thinking about my daughter. I think acting would probably be something that she would probably be pretty good at. Even though she’s two and a half, it’s hard to really know, but I can see her. She has that charisma, the charm, the ability to express and I’m just thinking for me, “Man, it would have been something I would have loved to do.” Even today, I’ll do improv sometimes and I just love it. I love the unknown of what you’re creating. It’s interesting hearing your story and how you’re talking about, “Hey.” As kids, you have this gift inside you to bring that out and to express that, which it’s so cool. It’s really, really unique.
Brian Levenson: When you got to NYU, and now it’s more formalized, did you still have the passion? What was your experience like at NYU?
Terry K.: Again, that was an elite school and very clique-ish where I went. And, one of the things that … I’m not Brad Pitt. I’m a character actor. I’m not a matinee idol in terms of the way I look, and so I was in a class with … So, insecurity came up a lot at first. I was in an acting class with a wonderful teacher in many ways. A Greek man named Nikos Psacharopoulos. Now, he’s most famous for founding a very important summer theater festival in Williamstown, Massachusetts called the Williamstown Theater Festival where all these New York actors, like Christopher Reeve, and all these people would go. Blythe Danner, who’s Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom would go every year and do plays with him. It’s still a feeder for amazing projects. He specialized in the plays of Tennessee Williams and Anton Chekhov. He was this incredible star, and very arrogant. We had him once a week, 60 of us in a class. 60 people. We’d do these scenes, so you wouldn’t work every week. He could be cutting. He once said to a guy, “Why don’t you pick something more suitable for your talent, like maybe accounting?”
Terry K.: This is a freshman, you know? He’s this 18, 19 year old kid. You’re supposed to make mistakes when you go to acting school. If you knew how to act, you wouldn’t be in acting school. You’re supposed to have talent, raw talent, and then be there to learn and to grow. So, I was so affected by that and he had a cut that later influenced my teaching and ultimately the choice to teach, which was to not do damage, which I think probably you can recognize as a parent. Speaking of late bloomers, I have a six-year-old. Back then, parents hit their kids. That was just culturally what was … That didn’t make them abusive. So, I got hit a lot by my mother and my dad. That was discipline, but my wife and I … And, she got hit a lot. She’s Irish, from Ireland. Cork. We’ve never hit our son, and we never will hit our son. I think all parents want to give their kids a better life than they experienced, which is not an attack on their parents.
Terry K.: It’s just you want to do that. So in Nikos’s class at the end of the fall semester, he made a cut, and cut half the people. So, you were either going to be in or out. And, I did some good work in that class. I did some bad work, but I did some good work. I certainly … You asked me did I have the passion, I mean I loved acting, but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I mean, I was learning, and so I got cut. And of course, that just hurts so bad. You see that list and it’s like the losers and the winners, and the winners were the attractive people, the people he was attracted to, the charismatic people. I was emerging. I was the ugly duckling in that way, so that felt awful but it led to my working with an incredible teacher named Jackie Brooks, Jacquelyn Brooks. She died recently, but she was the most nurturing, the best mother.
Terry K.: And, she was a working actor and she would just say, “You can do it.” She gave me such permission and such confidence. I wanted to do “Streetcar Named Desire.” Now, that’s Marlon Brando. I mean, that’s an iconic role. That’s an iconic masculine role. And she said, “Sure, why not?” And, I did that, and I did “Death of a Salesman”, the gentleman caller scene, and just all these amazingly seminal roles. She said, “Why not? Let’s do it.” It ended up that cut, that so-called fail, again when that door closed, another one opened. That was so powerful and transformative. Now, at the same time, I was at a studio. NYU Undergrad, they’ve got 1200 people in their undergrad. It’s the size of a small college. It’s an amazing moneymaker for them, and it’s an elite place where everyone wants to go.
Terry K.: But, what they do is they have all these New York studios that they subcontract to do some of the teaching. So, Lee Strasberg Institute had NYU students, Stella Adler, another great studio, had NYU students, and a place called Circle in the Square had NYU students, which was where I was studying. They’re not connected anymore. Then, around that time, I took a class, an academic class called Contemporary American Theater. Or, Contemporary Experimental Theater with this guy Ron Argelander, who was a professor. It was all about these downtown theater makers, people like Robert Wilson, people like Mabou Mines, and The Performing Garage. All this radical, weird stuff just exploding the idea of what is theater, what is performance? Do we have do it in a theater? We can do it on the street? A group called The Living Theater. I mean, all these weird things.
Terry K.: Joseph Chaikin and the Open Theater. It was all down below 14th Street, and he had started a studio at NYU called the Experimental Theater Wing. I transferred there halfway through, and that was amazing because the kids at my other studio would come to class dressed up for auditions, professional auditions. So, while they were training they were also working on their careers. And, then the teacher would say, “Who wants to work today?” And, someone would say, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t want to mess up my makeup or my pantyhose.” That just felt so off. And, the Experimental Theater Wing, everyone was in sweatpants and it was just an open floor, and that became my home.
Terry K.: So, I graduated. And then, I still didn’t know what the hell I was doing. One day I was doing a scene and I was lost, and that frightened the hell out of me because I didn’t know any musicians or dentists or architects who could do their work one day and not do it the next. Can you imagine going to the dentist and the guy, he says, “Jesus, what’s a drill?” But, I knew a lot of actors who had that problem, which was they would say their work was hit or miss. Some days, they had it. Some days, they don’t as though it’s some sort of mystical thing that they’d be visited by. I know your podcast talks about one of your key selling points is “masters of craft”, and I don’t think I was taught how to master the craft. I don’t think I was given those foundational tools.
Terry K.: Around that time, I saw a wonderful actor named Joel Rooks at a small theater. He was dating my acting teacher at the time, Rina Yerushalmi. I was backstage, so I saw him every night. And, every night he did a brilliant performance. He was the lead in this play. It was like watching Nadia Comaneci, like an Olympic gymnast sticking it. It was like watching LeBron James. I mean, it was just genius. I went, “I want to do that.”
Brian Levenson: What was genius about it? What did you notice? What did you see?
Terry K.: The consistency. The quality and the consistency. So every night it was solid, right? I think sports are a great thing. You think about Derek Jeter. I mean, he was not Babe Ruth, but he was consistent, right? Who’s that great guy from the Baltimore Orioles who played?
Brian Levenson: Cal Ripkin, Jr.
Terry K.: Cal Ripkin, yeah. It had that quality. It was consistent. It was solid. It was truthful. His work had authentic emotion. It had great skill in terms of his physicality, in terms of the accents he was doing. It was improvisational so it wasn’t just phoned in. It wasn’t like he just cookie cutter did the thing every night. It was the same every night, but just a little bit different every night, which meant he had some breath in it and some listening and he was in contact with the other actors in the audience. It was just supremely spectacular in its quality.
Brian Levenson: So Terry, go to where you are today as a teacher with all your experience in the coaching, what’s underneath that consistency? What leads to that as you-
Terry K.: Practice.
Brian Levenson: Yeah, tell me more.
Terry K.: So that guy, I said, “How do you do that?” And he said, “Well, I study with this guy William Esper.” William Esper studied with a guy named Sanford Meisner, the Neighborhood Playhouse. Bill died this past January. So, after four years at NYU, I went to Bill and said, “I want to train,” and he said, “Sure. Come on along. I think you’d make a good fit.” I said, “You know, I graduated from NYU, so what kind of class would you put me in?” He said, “The beginning.” I said, “But, I went to NYU.” He said, “Yeah, everybody starts at the beginning because we don’t know where the holes are, and we’re going to start with scales. We’re not going to start with scenes, which is where most American acting training starts, which would be like starting the violin with a concerto. Nobody starts the violin with a concerto. You start with scales. Now, no one goes to a concert to hear scales, but if you do scales every day, you become musical.”
Terry K.: Same thing with dribbling, same thing with all the stuff that athletes, musicians, dancers do daily, daily, daily. That practice. So, that training which was a two year training gave me amazing foundational fundamentals and that is the work that I teach now. I went to Bill after I graduated and said, “I think I want to teach this.” He said, “I don’t need any teachers.” I said, “Well, I’ll stay till you tell me to go,” and that began a 32 year relationship watching him teach, training to teach and then an apprentice system. I just believe in this work, and it is about practice. Excellence comes from practice.
Brian Levenson: All right, flip it. Now, watching him for 32 years, what made him great at teaching and coaching?
Terry K.: Sure. Well, he learned very well from Meisner, and Meisner had an ability to listen profoundly, and people who would be watched by Meisner felt like he had a laser beam into their soul. And, Bill had that, so he had a great understanding of human beings. He had a great understanding of human psychology. He had been in therapy, and I’m in therapy now, and I want all my actors to do therapy because we make our work up out of ourselves and if you don’t understand who you are, then how can you understand it? Eric Clapton knows every single square inch of his guitar. We need to understand everything about ourselves. We can’t go, “Why was I late for that appointment? Why did I ghost that person? Why didn’t I pay that bill?” All these places where we fall short or we don’t understand, “Why did I blow up at that shop clerk?” That can’t be cloaked in mystery. That must be understood, and Bill really pushed for that and he was incredibly playful.
Terry K.: He had this incredible mix of human understanding, rigor in the work and playfulness and a great sense of humor. He told great jokes. He told great stories, and he had a lot of love for his students. Very special man.
Brian Levenson: And, how are you different?
Terry K.: I have a lot of Bill in me. We are so much a product of our conditioning. I think that guy I mentioned early on, Lou Ormont, Meisner and Bill, that model, the acting class model, was students be quiet. The teacher is going to lead. You shut up and you adjust yourselves to me. I am the voice of God. And, not in an arrogant way. One of my colleagues used to say, who’s also trained with Bill, would say to students who were sassing her … She’d say, “What you know about acting would fit into a thimble. I have information. Let me give it to you.” So, there was definitely a hierarchy, which there is. I’m in charge, I’m running the ship. But, Lou’s groups taught me the power of the group and how much can come from the group and from making identification.
Terry K.: So, I’m very focused on getting all the boats rising and getting everybody into the water. And, I might be working with one actor and look over my shoulder and say, “Vanessa, I hope you’re listening because you guys know that when I’m talking to one person, I’m not just talking to one person. I may not be talking to all of you, but I’m talking to a lot of you.” That ability to make identifications and to weave the energy of the group is just something that’s an incredibly important value to me, and that was just not something that Bill focused on. That didn’t make him a bad teacher. It just makes me a little bit different.
Brian Levenson: Are you typically teaching and coaching in group settings? One-on-one? Just paint the picture. Most of us have not been in that environment and just are ignorant to it, so I’d love to learn about it.
Terry K.: So, acting classes usually happen in a group. And when I’ve had people, even very wealthy people, famous people’s children where they say, “Look, I don’t have the time to come to class, but can you teach me one-on-one?” I don’t think that’s a good deal. A class is typically three to three and a half hours with 20 people in it, and you might be working in that class just for 15, 20 minutes, and the rest of the time you’re watching. Now, you could go, “What the hell is that about? I want to work the whole time.” But, you learn an incredible amount by watching other people go through doors that you struggle with, or struggle with doors that you go through easily, and you learn a lot by absorbing and seeing, “Oh hey, if they can do it, I can do it,” and seeing other people’s struggles. I don’t think acting can be taught very well in a group setting. My classes are classes like that. I also have a coaching practice with a lot of successful and on their way to being successful actors, and that’s almost always one-on-one, although sometimes we’ll get a few people.
Terry K.: One of the guys I work with a lot is Sam Rockwell. We’ve worked together for 25 years. I actually met him when he was studying with Bill Esper, and that particular year, Bill had to miss a bunch of classes so he had me teaching for him, and that’s how I met Sam and another wonderful actor named Yul Vazquez. Sam, he won the Academy Award a couple of years ago for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and just did Fosse/Verdon for FX with Michelle Williams. We’ve done probably, I don’t know, 80 or 100 films. He likes to have more people in the room sometimes. He’s about to start work on a play on Broadway, so he brought a bunch of our friends, working actors, Chris Messina, who is a great actor, and Michael Godere, who is a good actor. We’ll just all divvy up the parts and play around. That’s fun, but usually it’s one-on-one, either in person or on Skype.
Brian Levenson: And, coaching verse teaching? Because, there sounds like there’s a distinction there for you. What do you need to bring when you’re teaching and what do you need to bring when you’re coaching? I’m thinking of teaching as the group and coaching as the one-on-one, but feel free to correct me if I’ve got it wrong.
Terry K.: It’s absolutely that. Coaching works best when they already know what they’re doing. So, Sam is a trained actor. He doesn’t need to be taught how to act. My job with him is to help him develop the role and make everything clear and precise, because especially with film and television the way it is these days, unfortunately there’s no time or budget for rehearsal. So, you have to show up to a movie set or a TV set loaded and ready to go. And so, lots of people employ coaches because you’re not going to get directions. There are a few directors in film and television who are amazing actor’s directors, but most of the time the best thing they did for you was to cast you, and then they got a lot of other things to worry about. They got to worry about the camera and the sound editing and all that stuff.
Terry K.: So, the more you know what you’re doing, the better. The simple thing I want to do in coaching is just let’s make it better. Let’s make it clear, let’s tell the story. So, we’ll go through all the moments many times to see if we can unpack it, decode it, and start to fuse imagination into it so it’s not just conventional and is something pretty, wonderful, playful, unique, interesting, illuminating the character but also honoring the individual actor. That’s different from teaching because in teaching, I’m trying to give them a skill and a craft. I’m trying to help them unlock something that most of the people I coach have already unlocked.
Brian Levenson: That’s so cool. It’s similar for me where there’s times where I’m really focused on unlocking … I’m going to use the word potential. I’m curious what you think about that word, potential given-
Terry K.: I love it.
Brian Levenson: When you were a kid though, you got the feedback that said, “Hey, he’s not fulfilling his potential.” But, for me, there are times when I’m working on potential which is A, let’s develop some mental skills and some techniques and some ways of doing things, some frameworks. Then, the other part is more … To me, that’s a transactional type deal, and I’m good with that, and I can play in that space. That transaction, those fundamentals can be transformational for people but I also love the idea of opening up possibilities with people, so I think there’s unlocking potential and there’s opening up possibilities. The possibility piece is honestly, especially when I work with adults, that’s often where we live. When I’m working with a CEO, or a pro athlete, or somebody to your point that has already got a lot of the skills, my job is to ask questions, my job is to try to open up and have them see maybe a different option. Not saying that the other option is right, but hey, let’s go explore, let’s go play.
Brian Levenson: As I’ve found myself getting older, I’m still young, but as I get older, I find myself becoming more and more intrigued by the opening up possibilities in that I want to work with really brilliant people that have an inner genius, and then my job is to ask questions, maybe show their genius in a different way that they haven’t seen before, and just opening up what are the other possibilities that exist? Because sometimes, when we get into a job, we narrow our focus and we just do the work and we go, go, go, go, go. We can do good work there, but greatness or genius or whatever you’re looking for, it requires opening up possibilities, in my opinion.
Terry K.: 100%. That’s how new things get built, right? Everything created, it started as an idea. If we just kept doing the same thing every day, we wouldn’t have [inaudible 00:57:02]. Someone had to say, “What would happen if we put a bunch of music in a box and that became an … ” You know, whatever that is, iPhone, iPad. They don’t even sell them anymore. I think what I think about that has to do with intuition and imagination. Not what is, but what could be. Sam and I riff really well today. We have a language between the two of us that is very fluid, like jazz musicians and improvising, so when he was working on “The Green Mile” years ago … great Stephen King film directed by Frank Darabont with Tom Hanks and all those guys, which was his first major studio film, I was listening at the time to this weird banjo music from Appalachia by this guy named Roscoe Holcomb on Folkways Records.
Terry K.: And I just said, “Sam, let’s just start dancing.” Can I swear on this podcast?
Brian Levenson: You can do whatever you want.
Terry K.: Okay, my thing just gave out, so it’s just going to be the internal mic. I hope we can still hear each other well.
Brian Levenson: Yeah, you’re good.
Terry K.: He had a line in that movie that was, “Hey, fuck stick.” He used that. He played this character named Billy the Kid. I said, “Let’s just listen to this banjo music and start to do some Appalachian clog dancing.” Now, this is a guy who’s in a maximum security prison who is being accused of terrible molestation of little girls and was ultimately a tragic character. That’s not something you think about dancing with or banjo music, but that idea came to me, and he just started dancing in my kitchen, and to that tune kept going, “Hey, fuck stick. Hey, fuck stick.” And, got really playful with it, and that’s in the movie. That’s the sort of thing I think of as the possibilities.
Terry K.: Or, we were working on a movie he did recently called “The Way, Way Back”. Fun movie. I said to him, “Why don’t you try singing that line?” He said, “You mean like just now?” I said, “No, when you do it.” He thought that was weird, but it’s in the movie. I trust somehow that the imagination that the script and the actor are delivering to me might be good. Not always. Sometimes, we come up with stupid ideas, but I like coming up with ideas. That’s not about potential. That’s more just about what could be. I think that’s what you’re talking about.
Brian Levenson: Yeah, spot on. I’m curious as I heard you get into him and repeat him, do you ever miss the acting? Do you ever-
Terry K.: Yes.
Brian Levenson: You miss the actual performing?
Terry K.: I do. I do, yeah. I do. It takes a lot of my time to run this business, which was a major shift for me. I went from being an acting teacher to a businessman when I opened the studio five years ago, and I’ve had trial by fire to learn all that, and that’s been great. But, it’s all-consuming so I don’t have the time. It’s a full-time job to be a professional actor. A few of my friends have given me little small parts here and there, and I’m terrified. I love it but it’s terrifying. I’m much more comfortable in the classroom.
Brian Levenson: I want to go into business for a minute because I’m at a place in my career where that decision has to be made where do I continue to go and do what I love every day and I love the one-on-one work or the workshops or the speaking and just build it for myself? Or, do I try to partner with other people where I think a bigger impact can be made and really create something bigger than me? I just know my own limitations. I’m limited if it’s just me. Whereas, if I can partner with others and bring others in, I think there can be a bigger impact, and so I’m curious for you what that’s been like transitioning the last five years from just doing the work to … We call it working in the business versus working on the business. Your capacity to work on the business and how you’re doing with that, while it sounds like you also continue to work in the business. So, I’d love to learn from you how you’re doing with that.
Terry K.: Well, that’s still definitely a work in progress, I would say for sure. I’m a very intuitive person, so something like spreadsheets make me glaze over. In acting, we have a thing called the stage manager, who’s really the accountant for the show, and writes down all the blocking and figures out schedules and all that kind of stuff. I can’t do that. My dad was a tax attorney, he could do all that. I can’t do any of that. Luckily, I have other people to do that for me. I’ve got an amazing manager who takes care of that nuts and bolts stuff because it just makes my eyes glaze over. But, I am interested in seeing this idea of maximum impact. I really wrestle with the idea of quality versus size, and greed as opposed to desire. Those polarities, and the possibility for corruption interest me. What if you had a great restaurant, a small restaurant, 20 seats, and you’ve got an investor who said, “Your cooking is amazing. Your chicken is world class. Let’s open up a chain and there’ll be 300 seat restaurants.”
Terry K.: Unless you’re really meticulous, the quality is going to go down and the brand is going to be not so good. We see that with WeWork a little bit, and it’s that myth of Icarus flying too high to the sky and then his wings melt. On the other hand, you don’t want to hide your light under a bushel. You don’t want to be falsely humble. So, for a long time, I would say, “I don’t want to be the biggest acting studio in New York. I want to be the best.” And, my wife recently told me that every time I say that, it makes her cringe because she thinks I’m trying to shrink myself. That was an amazing piece of feedback, and so now, I’ll just switch it and say, “I want to be the best, and if with that comes size, as long as I can continue to maintain my quality, I’m good with that.”
Brian Levenson: I love it. I love it. Man, I’m smiling ear to ear because no one’s going to see this, but you can see it. Really, really cool.
Terry K.: That’s not easy.
Brian Levenson: It’s hard, and there’s fear. I know for me, there’s fear of I love what I do every day. I am fortunate, and I work with a lot of people who don’t love what they do every day, and I know. So, this is a gift and this is something that I’m so grateful to be able to do. Look, we can just fire up this podcast right now and spend time exploring our minds. What a cool life. And, I’m not that old. I have the ability to take … I’m not scared of it not working. I’m scared of not doing what I love. And, that’s the fear. Now that I bring up fear, you mentioned something before we fired up the podcast that when you work with beginners, that they are often afraid of not making it.
Terry K.: They all are.
Brian Levenson: I’d love to talk about fear for a minute. When you work with those actors who are afraid of not making it, how do you serve them? How do you help them? What do you do?
Terry K.: Well, that’s a reality. There are many actors. However, as Mr. Rogers would say, there’s only one of you in the whole world and you are special. And, if you can cultivate your uniqueness, your unique take on things and not just be a cookie cutter of somebody else, or an imitation, there must be room in the world for you. There has to be. You were born for a reason. What you can do is be the very best you can be, and if you are the best you can be, which has to do with craft and practice and all that stuff … It takes a lot of different things to be a good actor. You have to go to theater all the time. You have to take care of yourself. You have to go to therapy, you have to rehearse. You have to go to museums. You have to live the life of an artist. If you’re obsessed with that and do that on a daily basis because you love it, you have to become successful.
Terry K.: Now, whether or not you become someone who wins a lot of awards or become a matinee idol, that’s a different thing. That’s very much related to marketing and the moment, right? Billie Eilish, who’s blowing up now at the age of 17, 20 years ago would not be where she is now because she’s just perfectly in the zeitgeist. It’s not that she’s not talented, she is, but it’s perfect timing. But, you will be successful. And when I meet actors, the first question I ask them, because the way people come to my school is we do it by interview. A lot of people do it by audition, and so they’ll come in and do a monologue. But, people can be coached within an inch of their lives on a monologue and you don’t really get to know the person, and I’m more interested in knowing who I’m going to spend two years with and whether it’s a fit for both of us because my studio is a big ask, a lot of time and it costs money.
Terry K.: So I ask them what their goals are, and it breaks my heart to hear these actors say, “Well, I just want to be a working actor”. I say, “Gosh, that is a very low ambition.” Or someone will say, “I don’t even need to be on Broadway or be in feature films. I could just do community theater.” I say, “Why? If you have a little girl who loves tennis and her hero is Serena Williams, what are her goals?” They say, “Well, to play at Wimbledon, to play in the US open.” And, you have a little boy and he loves baseball. What are his goals? To be in the World Series, to be in game seven of the World Series in the ninth inning. So, why would you have any less of a goal that matters. The goal that interests me, that I try and help actors to find and to claim, is I want to be the best actor I can be given my personality, my body, my DNA.
Terry K.: I don’t want to be better than Brad Pitt. I want to be the best actor I can be so that I can play leading roles in projects I care about. That’s a lifelong goal. That’ll get you going for the rest of … There’s no retirement from that.
Brian Levenson: So, two things. One, I love that you interview and the value you’re placing on the person in finding out what their psychology is, what their character is, who they are. And, pro sports teams. I’ve worked with an NBA team, an NHL team and a major league soccer team where they’ll hire me to help them interview players when they’re about to draft them. I think teams are getting smarter and smarter about, “Hey, we need to draft the person as much as the player because we are committing a lot of money to that person, and who that person is is going to really have a massive impact on their success.” It doesn’t mean they discount the talent or the physical gifts. They certainly do. You need those if you’re going to play, but those are foundational baseline stuff, and the person is going to determine how much they fulfill their potential.
Brian Levenson: That was one thought, and the second thing was I talked to a sports organization once, and they were making a decision on whether or not they should sign a player to a long term, massive contract and they were talking about the person, and they said, “Well, you’re not a bad guy, but he’s also not the one that makes our locker room great.” I was just like, “Well, if you’re going to sign him to this massive deal, who the person is is probably going to determine how successful that person in in fulfilling that contract.” They ended up not signing the person. I think that we often just see the talent and we forget that the talent and the person, they go together. You are so clear on that. You’re so clear on that, so it’s really cool to hear that and to hear you explain that in a tangible way when it comes to interviewing and how you’re thinking about interviewing.
Brian Levenson: The other thing I was curious about was fame. As you’re talking to those people who are saying, “Hey, I want to be a working actor,” I’m curious. You’ve been around famous actors. Is there a fear of fame in play, and also what’s the dark side or the downside that comes … In your line of work, it’s not your dad’s line of work. The best accountant or the best lawyer, you’re probably not going to hear about them, but in your line of work, if you are the best version of you, I’m sure for most people they’re hoping that that ends up causing them to be famous. Whether they want to be famous or not, that is what comes with it. You’re performing on a big stage or a big film or a big TV, so I’m curious of the downside that comes with fame as you observe and witness and get close to people that are experiencing it.
Terry K.: I don’t know if there’s a downside. I think that there are a lot of actors who want to be famous, and you could become famous without being good. They are now hiring actors now based on how many Instagram followers they have because they have more of a marketing reach. So, if you want to make it, you can make it without ever taking an acting class but you’ll never have a body of work that you’ll be proud of. I don’t really want to work with people who are interested in that. I want to work with people who want to be good, and that requires some humility. But again, in the formula that I think about, if you are good, if you are excellent, you have to be successful. Because, let’s look at Netflix. Netflix has billions of dollars riding on all their original content.
Terry K.: Obviously, they want to make money. That is their whole goal is to be profitable and to deliver value to their shareholders. Just to be totally purely business. Why wouldn’t they want the very best writers, directors, and actors to make them there? So, that’s why “The Irishman” is a complete global phenomenon right now with Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci and Al Pacino and all that cast. Three and half hours on Netflix, a huge budget. Because, they hired the best. So, you will be successful if you are the best because they would be stupid, it would be a foolish business decision to pick someone with better Instagram followers than the best actor in the room. They do that sometimes, but that doesn’t ultimately lead to a good product.
Brian Levenson: Love it. Last thing I want to focus on with you is you mentioned before we fired the mic that every morning your focus and your mission is to try to help actors be the best they can be. What are some habits or routines that you do to make sure that you’re at your best by the time you walk through the doors at your studio?
Terry K.: I think actually my mission first is I want to be the very best human being I can be. Every day, I have a cup of hot water and some figs just to get things going on. And, then I like to get into the ritual of grinding my own coffee beans and get into that in a geeky way. I’ll have some grain and some fruit millet and some stewed fruit. I like a traditional Chinese diet for that kind of stuff with some sesame seeds. Then, I have a lot of prayer that I do. There’s some prayers I say every day. I have an altar in my office at home that has pictures of different people that are inspiring to me. I’m into all kinds of touchy-feely weird stuff like crystals and flower essences and Essential Oils just because I think there’s probably a lot of wisdom that nature has for us that we don’t pay attention to.
Terry K.: I wish good things for everybody. There’s a loving kindness prayer in Tibetan Buddhism that starts with, “May all beings be happy.” I pray for health and happiness for me and my family. It’s interesting, Nancy Pelosi yesterday said that she prays for President Trump every day. He denies it, or he doesn’t believe it is, but I believe it. I ask for forgiveness for any misdeeds I might’ve done to anyone, and I ask that they forgive me for any misdeeds, and I try to forgive them for any misdeeds. So, there’s a lot of prayer and focusing and just meditative processes. And then, we take my son to school. We have a very affectionate ritual of high fives and fist bumps and hugs and kisses that we do every single day. Now, he’s six so he gets a little embarrassed doing it in front of people so we have to do it a bit more incognito.
Terry K.: And then, I have time in the car with my wife to connect, so just tuning into being the best human I can be. I go to therapy every week. I go to group therapy and individual therapy. I try and work out. I would like to work out more than I do, but I have some great people that I coach with who help me, and try and eat as clean as I can because I’d like to be alive as long as I can be. You never know when you’re going to go. It’s a very brief life we have. So, self-care and tuning myself inside and out.
Brian Levenson: I said that was the last question and I lied. So, I’m going to come back. Is there a religious framework that you follow. It sounds like you’re mixing a lot of different-
Terry K.: Yeah. You know, it’s weird. Again, this is how we turn the lemons into lemonade that we’ve been given. I mentioned at the beginning that my dad was Episcopalian and my mom was Orthodox Jewish. Each of those has traditions of initiation. You would get confirmed in the Episcopal religion like a Catholic so you could take communion, and you would be bar mitzvah’ed in the Jewish tradition as a young man and bat mitzvah’ed as a young woman. I never had either of those, and so I never had the initiation into the tribe. I think my parents thought that they were doing me a service, that they could leave the choice up to me, but actually it was very painful at the time because I didn’t know where I belonged. But, that’s now left me with a much more pantheistic view of tradition, and really I think they all point to the same place.
Terry K.: I had a real eye-opening experience in 1998. I went to India for the first time. I love travel and I love learning from new cultures, and I went to India thinking I’d just go once. I had a book like a Lonely Planet, but of spiritual India called From Here to Nirvana. It listed about … I don’t know, what? … 200 places in India, which is a place that they actually believe that there are living saints. We don’t think that way, but in that culture it’s normal for them to say, “Oh, this person’s actually a saint.” So, I went to a bunch of those places, and one was an ashram in Kerala in the south called Anandashram. There was no internet back then, so I called up and communications in India was weird, and just said, “Hey, can I come by?” I was about six hours away by train. They said, “Sure, you’re welcome.”
Terry K.: So, I went there. They give you a free room. Their practice is chanting. Their idea is that if you have the name of God on your tongue all the time, and you see everyone and everything as being an expression of God, and that you accept everything that happens as God’s will, that’s a good way to be. So, I happened to be put with this French guy who had been going there for years, who was also my age and was an artist, a painter. He showed me everything and took me around and really showed me that this was a very pure ashram, that they did a lot of good. They built schools. They did a lot of good stuff.
Terry K.: So, I went back the next year, and I went back year after year after year. So, that place really opened me up to Hinduism, Buddhism. In their ashram, they’ve got pictures of Jesus. They’re not orthodox. They’re saying all paths lead to the same place, so I would say yeah, a lot of streams are in me and basically we’re all trying to do the same thing. These ideas of factions can be very harmful as you know.
Brian Levenson: Would you mind sharing the pictures that are up on your wall? And if it’s private, you can keep it to yourself as well.
Terry K.: I’ve got pictures of some of the people from that ashram. There’s a guy named Papa Romdas. He graduated, he died, graduated from life in 1963 and his partner was a woman named Mother Krishabai. They had a devotee who was very important to me named Swami Satchidananda, who became like a spiritual father to me. So, I’ve got his pictures. A picture of a guy named Ramana Maharshi. These are all Indian saints. A guy Yogi Ramsuratkumar. Let’s see. Who else? That’s about it. Oh, Amma. Do you know Amma, the hugging saint? You ever heard of her?
Brian Levenson: I do not.
Terry K.: It’s this woman named Mata Amritanandamayi. Darshan is a Hindi word for the experience of a saint, what gets transmitted to you. Her transmission is through hugging, so she goes around the world … She’s in her 60s now … and has hugged millions of people. She’ll hug anybody. She would hug HIV patients, babies, families. People line up for hours to get her hug. I’ve been hugged by her many times, and they fold you into her. She’s got arthritis just from all the hugging she’s done, but they fold you into her body and she just says, “My son, my son, my son.” And then, she throws up some flower petals and Hershey Kisses and it’s over, but it’s symbolic of this incredible acceptance of everybody. So, I have her picture.
Brian Levenson: Awesome. Terry, I was having this conversation a couple days ago with a client of mine and we were talking about … He’s a CEO and he wants gentle to be one of the values that they have at the company. We had this conversation about gentle. I’m like, “Man, gentle.” I was racking my brain and how do I think about gentle? Then I was like, “Well, gentleman universally is good. You’re a gentleman. That’s a compliment.” I don’t think too many people would take that as a negative. But as men, we’ve often been told, “Oh, don’t be gentle. Be something other than gentle.” I’m sharing that with you because as I’m hearing your story, I don’t know if you’re a saint, but I know that you’re a gentleman and I appreciate your ability to go inward and do a lot of work to find out who you are and how you can show up for other people, and how you want to continue to show up.
Brian Levenson: Your being is incredible, and I love also this idea that you’re also still becoming, and it’s clear that you’re still growing. At your core, just getting to know you for the last 90 minutes, you’re a gentleman, so I want to thank you because I think the world needs more gentlemen. I just want to thank-
Terry K.: Thank you, Brian. That’s very kind. As long as you’re also willing to be hard. You can’t just be gentle. You need aggression, too. You need both.
Brian Levenson: I agree. And, you used the word polarity throughout today. I think greed, you mentioned a desire is a greed, and there’s a really cool activity called a polarity map where you can actually go into both of those because even the greed in you, or you used the word arrogance earlier, those things aren’t bad, either.
Terry K.: Absolutely.
Brian Levenson: Your actors need to have a little inner arrogance to believe that they’re the right person for the part, right?
Terry K.: 100%. And, you also have to have an inner killer.
Brian Levenson: For sure. Competitive spirit. I think this person was talking about gentle with other … I think competitive was another value. So, I don’t think that we have to be one or the other. I believe in “and” and I believe in polarity and I’m glad that you used that word because I think we often just think that you have to be this way or that way. The people that I admire, the people that I study, the people that I research and the people that I often talk to on this podcast are a combination. I appreciate you checking me earlier, as well, as I thought about anger. I think that’s a good takeaway for me as I walk away.
Brian Levenson: Before we close up, is there anything that you want to promote or shed a light on and let people know? I know you’re on social media. Let people know how they can find you there, and where they can find your studio. But, just promote whatever it is that you think deserves some attention.
Terry K.: Sure. Thank you so much. I’ve enjoyed this conversation, Brian. You are a good soul, as well, and I can see your face and hear in your voice how sensitive and thoughtful you are, and it’s been a real pleasure to talk to you. I just want to say that. I’m hoping if you come up to New York, you’ll let me take you out to lunch and show you my studio and we can get to know each other better because you seem like a good guy.
Brian Levenson: I would love that, and thank you.
Terry K.: You’re welcome. Well, I want to promote theater, first of all, which has nothing to do with me, but if you can go to a play, go to a theater, take your kids to anything. It’s transformative. Just step away from the screen for a moment and go see something analog and real. It’ll change your life. So, support your local theater, I would say, and writers and stories. Those are important.
Terry K.: My studio is called the Terry Knickerbocker Studio. We’re in Brooklyn, in Industry City, a campus here in a place called Sunset Park, 30 minutes from Manhattan. We teach a two-year acting program and we do that twice a year, starting in September and in January. We still have some spots. So, you can go to TerryKnickerbockerStudio.com. We’re on Instagram. I think it’s @TerryKnickerbocker, maybe Terry Knickerbocker Studio-
Brian Levenson: Terry Knickerbocker Studio on Instagram. On Twitter, you’re Tknickerbocker.
Terry K.: Tknickerbocker. And, Facebook. We also have a six week summer intensive, so if you’re not up for the big commitment of two years, but you have an inner actor in you that’s wants to check something out, even if you don’t think you’re going to be an actor, it’s really transformative. That’s six weeks from mid-June to the end of July. It’s hardcore. It’s like bootcamp, but we play hard and we work hard, and I’d love to meet you and see if we can help each other.
Brian Levenson: Awesome. I’m on Twitter, @BrianLevinson, Instagram, Intentional_Performers, and you can listen to all these conversations at IntentionalPerformers.com. Terry, I’ll definitely take you up on that. Both my brothers are in New York, so I’ll make my way to Brooklyn. I’m there for New Years, but it’s a wedding. It’s actually my friend Danny’s wedding, who I mentioned earlier.
Terry K.: Great, great.
Brian Levenson: So, maybe I can get you to crash his wedding for New Year’s Eve.
Terry K.: That’ll be fun.
Brian Levenson: But, I look forward to many more conversations with you, and I’m really grateful that we were able to connect, and all the best to you in the business, and thank you for your time.
Terry K.: Thank you, Brian. What a great pleasure it’s been. Take care.
Speaker 5: Thank you for listening Intentional Performers with Brian Levenson. Here in this week’s episode gem.
Terry K.: I think what it’s developed for me now is a tremendous sensitivity to the underdog and to help people find their power in the work, find their voice, find their aggression because you’ve probably heard of this thing called learned helplessness, which is a way people just learn in their upbringing to not know what to do, and they go limp. So, sometimes in an exercise they’ll start to talk from let’s say a victim’s place like, “You’re hurting me,” or, “You’re making me sad,” in an acting exercise. I’ll just say, “Stamp your foot. Do something with your body that has some aggression in it.”