Balls of Steel: What Can Writers Learn From Actor Interviews?

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When I write, I need some sort of noise in the background. Sometimes it’s classical music, movie soundtracks, or the news on TV. The other morning, I started channel surfing, finally landing on Inside the Actor’s Studio, hosted by James Lipton. Within two minutes, I set my DVR to record the series. I was hooked.

James Lipton and David Duchovny

James Lipton and David Duchovny

In Balls of Steel Goes Into the Writing Room and Behind the Lines with DR, I talk about the importance of creating characters actors want to play. Listening to actor interviews can not only give you great insight into what attracts them to a role but also insight into the industry itself.

George Clooney spoke about auditioning: “Actors tend to get in their own way, a lot. A lot of times you will do things that will screw up your audition process. I was very bad at auditioning, and I always went in to it saying  ‘God I hope I don’t screw this up.’ But at the same time, the directors are saying, ‘God, I hope this person is the savior.’ What you have to remember is that the worst thing that could happen is you don’t get the job you don’t already have.”

Sounds very familiar to what it’s like for us to pitch.

Back to our characters…

I’m not just talking about protagonists and antagonists. I mean all of the characters. Sometimes an actor will be so attracted to a supporting role that they don’t mind playing second to another. Albeit it less screen time, exploring a fascinating character might end up stealing the entire movie and be their award-winning opportunity.

Or perhaps an actor shares the same wound as the character, drawing them to the part. Actors are complex, possibly more than most, at least the actors I know. To shine in their craft, they need to be willing to access dark corners of their minds. That takes bravery. Give them something to work with. Create multi-layered, complex characters no one can say no to playing.

Hilary Swank on 'Inside the Actor's Studio'

Hilary Swank on ‘Inside the Actor’s Studio’

Understanding actors’ minds is essential to understanding them as artists. What better way than to watch their interviews, especially by someone as talented as James Lipton. He’s better than Barbara Walters at getting people to cry… even Dustin Hoffman shed tears!

In the episode I watched, Lipton spoke of a questionnaire he uses at the end of each interview. He credited the TV host from Paris who originated the questions, but his name escapes me at the moment (I’ll update the post when I remember it).

What is magical about these questions is they allow you to learn more about a person in a single word than in 30 minutes of conversation.

Let’s play. You are the actor. I am James Lipton… without a beard:

  1. What is your favorite word?
  2. What is your least favorite word?
  3. What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally?
  4. What turns you off?
  5. What is your favorite curse word?
  6. What sound or noise do you love?
  7. What sound or noise do you hate?
  8. What profession, other than your own, would you like to attempt?
  9. What profession would you not like to do?
  10. If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

Now, I want you to go one step farther. Imagine your characters answering these questions. What would they say?

It’s not just the answers they give that are telling, it’s also how they give them. Would they fidget at the thought of even being asked? Would they sit up confidently ready to belt responses out without thinking? Would they have direct eye contact or look at the floor? When Jennifer Lopez answered Lipton’s questions, she was full of nervous laughter, while James Gandolfini was guarded and shy. How your characters hold themselves when under pressure speaks volumes as to how they’ll conduct themselves in your story when the conflict rises.

What will answering these questions reveal about yourself, your characters, and your story?

We rely on actors to breathe life into our characters. Even when we pitch our work, producers might ask who we envision in the role. Why not take the time to understand the complexities of the artists we rely on to bring our stories from page to stage or screen? Imagine the possibilities of learning by exploring our craft from all sides.

If you’re lucky, actors might even inspire you to step into their world and take an acting class yourself. Who knows, maybe we’ll see you across from James Lipton one day.

I’ll leave you with one more George Clooney quote that speaks to writers as well as actors: “Confidence is one of the big things you’re selling.”

See, we do have something to learn from actors. Imagine that.

Editor’s note: We have an upcoming columnist, Brett Wean, who will explore the benefits for writers who take classes in acting and improvisation. Stay tuned for his debut article, coming soon.

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3 thoughts on “Balls of Steel: What Can Writers Learn From Actor Interviews?

  1. K. Rowe

    Excellent article. I have 2 feature scripts that would fit one actor quite perfectly. Getting them into the right hands has been difficult since I’m a veteran novelist, but a baby screenwriter. Alas, I keep at it with the hopes one day I’ll see that actor portraying Captain Dar Meltom or Marcus Bishop. *sigh*

  2. Patrick Mahon

    I’m a big fan of these too. And the best part is they are all on Youtube.

    A couple of my personal favorites:

    – I love the Clooney interview and the quote you chose.

    – Morgan Freeman. Especially when he is asked by a student: “What to do in those lean times, when you want to give up?” His answer is candid, saying he wanted to throw in the towel everyday but someone, or something, always came along and told him not to give up.

    – Bradley Cooper. He is the first student of the Actors Studio to ever be invited back as a guest on the stage. The montage of him in the audience, asking questions to De Niro, Sean Penn et al. is truly inspiring. And he comes off as a bit of a dude. LOT of crying in this one.

    – Kevin Spacey. Worth it just for those pitch perfect impressions.

    Also, I believe the questionnaire is from a French TV show host called Bernard Pivot, by way of Marcel Proust.

    Here’s a link to its different incarnations:

    http://senselist.com/2006/09/06/the-questionnaires-of-james-lipton-bernard-pivot-and-marcel-proust/

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