BACK STAGE WEST
July 01, 1999
For Jason Alexander, life after 'Seinfeld' is a lot like before: It's about the work.
by Rob Kendt
Every winter, actors pour into Los Angeles for a shot at a role on one of the handful of network TV pilots that get the green light in the months between January and May, give or take a week. Most see it as a kind of casting lottery, with ascending levels of fortune: You hope for a role on a pilot, then hope the pilot gets picked up, then hope the series continues for more than a few seasons (or more than a few episodes), then hope it gets syndicated. Voila! Watch the money roll in.
Jason Alexander never entered those sweepstakes. In 1989, he was starring as the emcee/narrator/multi-part performer in the hit Jerome Robbins' Broadway when someone connected to a Castle Rock pilot called The Seinfeld Chronicles, an unconventional new sitcom built around the successful standup Jerry Seinfeld, saw him and thought he might be right for the role of neurotic George Costanza.
"I was sent to some casting person in New York with four pages of the original pilot script," Alexander recalled in a recent interview. "That's all I had to go on, and it just struck me as very Woody Allen-like material. So that's why I ran out and got glasses and did kind of this fake Woody Allen accent, and put it on tape like I've done dozens of times for other pilots and you never hear about it again. A week later they flew me out to meet Jerry and Larry and go test at the network, all in one day. And by the time the plane landed back in New York they said, "You got it.'"
The rest was television history. After a rocky start and low ratings, Seinfeld ran for nine seasons, rapidly joining the ranks of all-time classic TV sitcoms, and Alexander became a household name and face. A year after the self-willed final episode of Seinfeld aired--capping a season that almost didn't begin due to bruising contract negotiations, which led to $600,000-per-episode contracts for Alexander, Michael Richards, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus--Alexander isn't resting on his laurels. Indeed, he recently wrapped work on Des McAnuff's Rocky and Bullwinkle, in which he plays Boris Badenov, and he directed a movie last summer, Just Looking. In addition, Alexander's production company, Angel Arc, produced a pilot with Michael McKean this past winter, and he's likely to appear in Blake Edwards' next film.
It's a career many would envy, but the key to success for this jobbing actor, who was born Jay Scott Greenspan in Newark, NJ, in 1959, has been a reliance on the bedrock of acting craft. At a recent one-day seminar sponsored by AIA Actors Studios, Alexander held forth on his tried-and-true approach to the acting craft, which, as he described in an interview with Back Stage West, is easy enough to explain--and takes years of hard work to absorb and apply.
Back Stage West: Since the last episode of Seinfeld aired, what has your life been like?
Jason Alexander: It's been hell! I anticipated a fairly long spell of unemployment, because historically that's what happens to actors on a long-running series. I haven't had a day off yet, and I would like one.
BSW: With Seinfeld, you hit the whole jackpot: got on a pilot, went to series, it became a hit, and then syndication--which I've always pictured as if there's a little "you" going to work every day, so you don't have to anymore unless you choose.
Alexander: See, this is the big fallacy of syndication; this is what, during our famous negotiations, we were trying to make clear to people. Syndication is a valuable asset to an actor only if you are a profit participant, which we are not. We kept saying, "Since in syndication Seinfeld is going to generate, we already know, a billion dollars of profit," Julia and Michael and I said, "Let's try and figure out what the success formula for Seinfeld has been. Breaking it down: There's Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David; there's Castle Rock for hanging in there; there's NBC for hanging in there; there's the writers for turning that great stuff out. Then there's the three of us. And then there's everything else. So we're one sixth of the formula."
And we said, "You know, this has been nine years of our lives; we will be identified as these characters forever. Our careers are now about sort of distancing ourselves from those characters, which is not easy--these images are gonna be out there in perpetuity, and it doesn't benefit us one iota. We would like a small participation to make it beneficial to us, and it seems we're one sixth of the formula that got you there." And we thought, What's a more fair and equitable place to take our success from than profits? Nobody's losing anything; it's just profits.
We were basically told to fuck off. At which point we said, "All right, if you're not gonna let us take it from profit, and you want to continue to have a show, now we have to take it from production." And we drove the price of making television sky-high; it was a horrible thing. As I was sitting there doing it, I said, "If NBC makes this deal, they're nuts." And they made it, and then what happened? ER, Mad About You--I mean, the price of doing television went up, and now there's a complete backlash. The networks don't want to deal with outside companies, they want to keep everything in-house. Why? Because they're pissing money away left and right. I literally believe that the Seinfeld negotiations crippled network television--all because they would not be reasonable and let us participate in the profits.
BSW: But you do get residuals, right?
Alexander: We get standard SAG residuals, which have a diminishing return, and at some point they stop altogether. I mean, it's well reported what Jerry has made in syndication; it's more than $200 million. I have made in syndication monies--I don't think I've made $200,000, really, in syndication, and that's worldwide now. And it gets smaller.
So that's not the golden egg. Really, the golden egg of doing a series is that you cross that very stupid bridge that says "Name Actors Only" in casting sessions. All of a sudden you become a name actor; it gives you marquee value. That's all that a series does. If you own it, if you're the star of it--yes, it can make you indescribably rich. And God knows my personal fortunes have not suffered from doing Seinfeld.
BSW: I would say that one sixth is a conservative estimate for yours, Michael's, and Julia's contribution to the show's success. I remember at the first Screen Actors Guild awards, Jerry accepted the award for ensemble performance and he said, "My name is Jerry Seinfeld and I'm a bad actor," his point being that he surrounded himself with great actors who made him look good. When you're working with someone who doesn't have training, who doesn't really even care to be an actor the way you understand acting, is your process any different? Is it like working with a child actor?
Alexander: The greatest thing about Seinfeld was the ease we found in working with each other. In the pilot, Jerry came up to me and said, "Can I give you a line reading on one line, because it's just the way we heard it?" And I said, "Great, give me the reading. If I understand it and I can pull it off, I'm happy to do it." If it makes me seem funnier, why not? But I said, "By the same token, can I ask you what the hell you're playing in this scene? Because you wrote a scene where you do this and this and this but you're not playing it. So would you commit to it, please, so that we have a dynamic in the scene?"
And that's how we worked. I don't think Jerry was a bad actor; I think Jerry was a frightened actor. If you notice in the first two seasons, he gave everything that had to do with emotional display away. That's why the ensemble cast became hot: He gave us all the anger, all the sex, all of the feelings, and he just went right down the middle, cool Jer. And he started to realize that we were having more fun--we were playing the stuff that was really fun to play. So he would put his toe in and he'd write a girlfriend scene for himself, and then he'd write an angry scene. I think he just blossomed. He's not a bad actor; he's a light comedian. And he just gave himself more opportunities, finally, and started to enjoy them instead of going, "I can't, I can't, I can't."
BSW: As hard as you worked to get to that point in your career, do you feel that now you have to work in a different way just as hard to put that part of your career behind you or to move on?
Alexander: No--in fact, I have no interest in putting it behind me. You know, I think the trick to happiness with this stuff is to admit that in my 30s I probably hit the pinnacle of popular success. I can't imagine doing anything, unless I'm cast in Star Wars III, that's going to hit as large an audience and sustain their interest for as long. But I had that shot, that's the unique thing; so you have to kind of embrace that and go, "OK, so what I do now, I'm doing for me." What's hard now is finding, really determining, what it is that interests me at this point. I've done some directing, I've done a little producing, I do a lot of acting. But what should I really focus on to walk out of my house and leave my kids at home? It's that kind of thing. Nothing has to be done, so now it's really, What is worth doing? And that's hard to figure out.
You know, you spend 35 years going, "It's a job, I've got to take it, it's a job, I've got to take it," and you just make the best of it. And when that is removed, then it becomes a personal expression, what you do and don't do. And there's a little more responsibility in that.
BSW: You spent a lot of years on the stage in New York. I'm wondering, what does a New York actor have to say to L.A. actors--like those in this AIA class you're doing--who maybe don't have the same goals or opportunities?
Alexander: The only thing you can say is, you reap what you sow. You know, out here success for the untalented is incredibly common. Television in particular doesn't look for talent; it looks for personas. You have a great persona? You can be a TV star. I don't know how long you can sustain it. So it depends what you want: Do you want to have a career that goes beyond your look? Do you want to have a career that goes beyond, you know, 11 minutes in a 22-minute television show every week? Some people don't. That's fine.
You know, I tend to talk to people in L.A. who go, "I want to be DeNiro and Streep." Well, being DeNiro and Streep in L.A. is no different than being, you know, Ian McKellen in New York. The process is the same; the business is different. But the craft is exactly the same, and the concern you take and the energy you put into having that ability. Then there's a whole other lesson to be learned about how to deal with the fact that the business doesn't really give a crap about that, unless it's not there when they want it.
BSW: So your advice doesn't tend to be, "Get in plays" or "Go to New York"?
Alexander: No. My advice, and this is something that I tell graduating theatre students--the first thing we talk about is, What is the definition of success or failure? Is success only my career? Do you want my career? Because if you do, 99 and a half percent of you are destined for misery; you can't get my career. I can't get my career; it's a happy accident. I stepped in the right pile of shit, you know? I could have done another pilot that year and no one would know anything about it. Seinfeld was a long shot; everybody said, "No way it's staying on." Stuff happens. So if you just say, "I want to be big," it's a very unhappy way to go.
But I also point out that actors are the only career people I know of who are very non-specific about what their goal is. Now, a lawyer goes in, studies law, and he goes: I want to go into real estate or corporate law, or criminal litigation. An artist will say: I really want to concentrate on oil painting, or sculpture, or mixed media. A musician will study certain instruments and say: Gee, I'd like to be a classical performer as opposed to a jazz player. Actors go, "I just want to act." And I say to them, "You know, stop for a second and think about what charges you up the most. Do you want to be on the stage, do you want to be in film, do you want to be a comic actor? Do you just want to make it for the money and capitalize on your look and do commercials and soaps?" Each one of those answers gives you a much more specific attack on what city you should go to, who you should try to network with. But when you're just going, "Here's my picture, somebody help me," you're a leaf in the wind.
This is the kind of stuff I talk to people about, no matter if it's New York or L.A.: Be specific. What do you want? Or even, What do you think you want?
BSW: Of course, actors do build careers that are remarkably varied, like yours.
Alexander: Yes, but all I cared about was a career onstage. I wanted to work on the New York stage as a director and as an actor. Everything else that has happened has been a happy mistake.
I mean, I got into the business as an amateur, as a kid just working in a community theatre, and out of that--just the love of being onstage--I got seen by an agent. Well, there's very little theatre when you're 14, as a professional, so they started putting me up for commercials. OK, sure, I started having a commercial career, but that was enough to sustain me so that I could go bum around looking for a stage career. So once a month I would do a national commercial and I'd make, you know, 10 grand and go, "Great, now I can live."
BSW: It seems that if you get specific as an actor, as you say, then your passion for your work shows, and maybe then people in other areas might see that and think, Oh, if you can do that, you could also do this.
Alexander: Absolutely. I mean, I want money--I never said, "Gee, I will never do film and television." I just wasn't interested in it. When somebody came to the theatre and said, "We'd like to see you for this film," OK. But then again, the training I was getting was for any of the media; it doesn't matter, the approach is the approach. So, you know, being prepared for everything is great, wanting everything is great--trying to get everything simultaneously is insane.
BSW: Apart from advice, what do you tell actors about the craft?
Alexander: What I really understand about acting I can tell you in 10 minutes. Everything else is practice and trial and error.
I think most people who go into college training are high school actors flying by the seat of their pants; they enjoy doing theatre and they have a natural talent for it and are basically untrained. And then here they are just inundated with technique and training and ideas, a whole new world, on top of which you're living on your own for the first time in your life. I think what happens at the universities is that you take two steps forward and three steps back. You're moving forward, but you have obliterated everything that you came in knowing. When I left Boston University, I came out going, "I don't even know what I knew when I went in."
So, coming back to New York, I started studying with every teacher I could find, and after about two years of searching I wound up with the guy who became my guru, Larry Moss, who I basically studied on and off with for 12, 13 years.
BSW: Doesn't he do a Meisner-based thing?
Alexander: It's a mix of stuff; I think Larry learned a lot from a teacher named David Craig. Larry's a little bit of a Method guy--he's a little bit of everything--but what he does, and what I hope to do when I teach, is demystify the art of acting. No one had ever quite said to me before: "Someone hands you a piece of material, what do you do?" Any actor who's trained will go, "Uhh, ahh. . . I can do my substitutions, I could do my breakdown of scenes..." It's kind of winging it. Larry's philosophy, which I now thoroughly believe and preach, is that you do the same thing every time, in the same order every time, and it doesn't matter what the material is. It can be a commercial, children's theatre, Shakespeare, movie, television, soap opera, doesn't matter. Technique is technique, and if you have it and it works for you, when you do it right it prepares you to go rehearse. And then you find whatever the material is in rehearsal.
Technique for me is, How do I do enough crafting so that I can rehearse intelligently, and how do I then make choices that will sustain me for a run? That's all it is. Very few people can say it that specifically, so that's what I do.
BSW: So it relates to finding the action and breaking down the scene or. . .
Alexander: It's nothing that a studied actor has not heard before; it's just very clear-cut. You have to answer four questions: Who am I speaking to? What do I want from them? How am I going to get it? and What is standing in the way of what I want? But it's not just answering them--you have to answer them so incredibly specifically that it can take weeks to come up with answers for these things. You not only have to make choices that are smart but fit the material. And ideally you're making choices that once you get them, they make your instrument do things so that you don't have to manufacture a performance--they're so strong that when you plug in the right thought, or the right word, or whatever it is, your instrument starts to respond. And that's hard.
And that's the difference between a craftsman and a non-craftsman. Actors have to take the responsibility that any artist makes in going, "I choose that color, that stroke, right there. Right or wrong, there it is." Actors have to go, "I'm not winging it, I'm not waiting to see what happens; I'm making this choice right here with my intelligence and with my instrument." It's especially good when you're preparing stuff for auditions. No one's gonna tell you different; no one's gonna direct you out of it. So you have to be able to craft this material so that it shows you in a great light, shows your range, shows your ability, and shows your everything. How do I walk into that room and be undeniably more masterful than anyone that's walked in before me? It can't just be cockiness, it just can't be, "I know I'm good." It has nothing to do with me being good or not. It's that I'm doing things that the average schmo on the street is not doing. They don't know how. I craft, and they hope. That's the difference.