Undercover At The Actor's Studio
Contentment Thy Name Is Cameron
When I was offered the chance to go to a taping of Inside the Actors Studio with James Cameron, it took all of me not to wet myself and start convulsing. James Cameron has done hundreds if not thousands of interviews over the course of his career, but there is no interview like The Actors Studio interview and no interviewer in Hollywood as revered as James Lipton. To see the two men together on stage, in the midst of the release of the biggest film of all time, was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity and one that I was honored to witness. For the sake of privacy I have unapologetically changed the name of a principal character of this article. If nothing else, I hope that it brings you to watch this episode of Inside the Actors Studio when it airs on Bravo on March 1.
There’s Nothing Like Having a Ticket
Half the fun of standing outside the Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts on a blistering cold February night is watching the people who are just trying to get in. Shivering and bewildered, they bob around and badger the theater staff like anxious guests at a dinner party looking for the hors d’oeuvres.
"Excuse me? Do you know how many people they’re letting in tonight? Is there a better place to stand? What time do they let the stand-by guests in?"
Usually I’d be right there beside them. Scrounging and searching for that one person on the inside who looks like they’re a sucker for a pouty face and a good story. But tonight they’ll be none of that for me. Courtesy of my friend Jen, tonight I’m with the “in” crowd.
Jen Saunders is one of the few friends I kept in touch with after college. A second year graduate student at The Actors Studio, she has lived this experience at least a dozen times. She calls me from inside the theater to let me know she’ll be out in a few minutes.
"Where are you standing?" she asks.
"I’m right outside by the front doors, next to the Will-Call line."
"Oh, we don’t line up there. We’re in a special line at the bottom of the block."
There are four lines to get into the Center for the Arts and your status of importance determines what line you end up on.
The lowest of the low wait on Stand-by. Those who are least likely to become audience members are found on the Stand-by line. It’s more likely that a person wake from a 30 year coma than someone from Stand-by find themselves a seat in this theater. And if they do find themselves inside, the best seats they can hope for are in the mezzanine, which offers about as good a view as sitting in a closet would. Tonight, with a massive high-profile interview like this one, there’s little chance any of them will find their way inside.
The bourgeois of the line hierarchy are the ticket holders, those who purchased tickets in advanced from the Actors Studio. It’s usually the longest line and on this particular night, a night of importance seldom seen, this line stretches into the next borough. Ticketholders have no reserved seats, only sections.
Third is Will-Call. Here, those who have tickets waiting for them at the theater stand patiently and excitedly, eager to greet the warmth of their cushioned, reserved seats. Tonight, about 20 contingents from NBC wait outside. Most of them are older management types. Grey hair and suits and Smartphones abound.
Jen walks out of the theater and passes me without noticing. She hangs a left and I follow her down the block to the fourth line. The line of kings and queens and their guests of honor: Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Students Only, the shortest of all the lines, at the very bottom of the block, with a backdoor entrance all to its own. Jen and I say our hellos and stand waiting. Not three minutes later the staff begins taking our tickets and we’re let inside.
"They always seat us first," Jen explains.
We walk down a gray hallway that leads to an orchestra entrance of the theater. The Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts is by no means large as far as Manhattan theaters go, but 743 seats for a downtown theater is impressive. The curtain is open and revealed is a set that has become synonymous with Hollywood and, more importantly, the craft of acting; the set of Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton.
The students are seated in individual chairs placed at the very front of the theater, right on top of what would be the orchestra pit if one existed. There are five rows of chairs tonight; two more than were set up for the last interview I saw here. The crowd is easily three times as large as it was then. I expected that though; watching an interview with god will only happen once in a lifetime.
As we sit and wait for the ushers to let the commoners still freezing outside in, Jen introduces me to some of her friends in the acting program. Many are performers, but a fair number are also playwrights. I snap my head around as one of Jen’s fellow students plops her bags in her chair and takes off her coat.
"Just once they should put the good looking people in front!"
She is half-jokingly referring to the two or three heavy set girls who have found seats in the very front row, practically on top of where the Man himself will be sitting.
"Look at this! It’s unbelievable!"
I laugh to myself and Jen balks a little, but the importance of exposure cannot be understated for these students, many of whom are looking for more than just 15 minutes of fame. It’s no secret that to make a living in the arts is a struggle, right up until the moment your name is on a check for a sum that will last you the rest of your life.
Not missing a beat, Jen’s friend settles down into her chair and promptly asks,
“Do you have any eyeliner?”
Although I chuckle again I understand where she’s coming from. After all, how often is it that James Cameron comes to town?
The rest of the students around me talk about the things that acting students normally do: who signed with whom, who is auditioning where, who is going to get their big break. The crowd has started filing in and noise is growing in the theater. The Will-Call line is let in first and the older set take their reserved seats a few feet behind our own. A few students are still straggling in as I turn to introduce myself to another friend of Jen’s. Out of nowhere, an usher frantically taps me on the shoulder.
“No food! No food!”
“Food?” I look where he’s pointing and he’s spotted my bottle of cranberry juice sitting on the floor. “Oh…” a harmless transgression, but an amateur mistake none-the-less. There is absolutely no food allowed in the theater. Jen volunteers to throw it out for me.
Around seven o’clock they replace the classic Motown music they were playing in the theater with the Actors Studio theme. A tall man with grey hair wearing a dark suit walks out from back stage and heads toward the crowd. Some of the students notice him immediately and whispers of, “Is that really him?” and “God he’s tall,” can be heard crisscrossing throughout the seats. As the man steps down and prepares to sit, a burst of applause breaks out from the student section. The rest of the theater quickly realizes that none other than Stephen “Slang” Lang, who played Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar, is in attendance. Lang playfully checks behind him as if the audience is applauding for someone other than himself and then smiles. He tosses thumbs up to the crowd and takes his seat. Jen tells me that, besides starring in Avatar, Lang also sits on the board of directors for The Actors Studio.
Jeremy Corrigan, a short heavy-set man in his 30’s with a wide smile and a neatly trimmed beard, comes out to address the crowd. Jeremy is a playwright himself, and is responsible for much of the research that goes into the questions James Lipton prepares for each interview. Lipton says the research for one interview usually takes about two weeks. I ask Jen the extent to which Jeremy aids Lipton in the process; she says she is unsure, but that she has heard it is extensive. Jeremy has this “man behind the curtain” aura to him. So much so that when he addresses the crowd he doesn’t even introduce himself. It’s only after asking another student that I find out his name.
Like a ringmaster opening up the circus, Jeremy rallies the audience. He starts with the rules: no hats, no gum, no food, no cell phones, fire exits are in the back, and please don’t spoil the interview. He then lets out the first Titanic joke of the night,
“I’m king of the Tri-state area!”
He gets moderate laughs and mostly groans from the audience. Next, the sound check.
“On a scale of one to ten, can I have a level five applause please?” The audience obliges.
“Now, a ten!” The hoots and hollering commence. “Excellent. Everyone get settled and we’ll start in a few moments.”
The crowd bristles with excitement. The doors close and they crank the AC (presumably to wake up any of the old-timers nodding off in the back). The lights come up on the audience and I’m blinded for a moment or two. Things go quiet. Finally, after an eternity, from stage left Lipton emerges.
A standing ovation from the audience welcomes Lipton to a chair that he has been sitting in for the better part of the past fifteen years. Once seated he wastes no time and begins.
“I don’t have to tell you how special this evening is.” Classically, no moment of great importance has ever been lost on James Lipton. He says only a few words about the night’s guest ending his opening introduction as quickly as possible. “Please welcome, James Cameron.”
Many actors and directors have walked out on that stage. Titans of the industry like Spielberg, Streep, Redford and Fonda. Now, with a slow, comfortable walk and two hands raised, thanking the crowd for their standing ovation, Cameron.
“It’s very nice,” he says as he reaches his chair.
“You deserve it,” Lipton replies.
“I don’t care if I deserve it. It’s nice.”
The first questions always cover the same basics at The Actors Studio. Where were you born, what did your parents do, did you have any siblings and who are they? Cameron is at ease, joking with the crowd as people whoop when he mentions Ontario and Niagara Falls.
“I can get Ontario,” he says, “but a special shout-out to the guy from Niagara Falls. That’s pretty small.”
From there the interview moves into questions about the influences that Cameron had as a young boy. The strength of The Actors Studio interview has always been, and will always be, its completeness. Lipton’s questions leave no stone unturned and aiding him tonight is a guest that loves to talk, tell stories, and make jokes.
When Lipton asks Cameron about the times his mother took him to the science museum Cameron responds, “That was my idea of a hot Saturday night – drawing at the museum.”
Moving into his high school years, Cameron talks about how he started the school science club and drama program and the film that made him want to go from, “being a fan to being a practitioner.”
2001: A Space Odyssey was the first time he really thought of cinema as art.
Cameron tells the audience about how he found himself in Orange County, California driving a truck for a school district. He tells them of the hours he spent, sitting in a university library, studying the craft of filmmaking. Cameron had a childhood that was heavily laden with the influence of engineering from his father and drawing from his mother. He thought of filmmaking as a machine and that to understand how it worked it had to be disassembled. It’s an ideology that has shown its influence in much of Cameron’s work. Surely there were many engineers who laughed at the mention of “unobtanium” in Avatar.
As the interview continues the students scramble to write down the tips and tidbits of gold that come flying out of Cameron’s mouth a mile a minute. Thankfully, the man is a master of the sound bite and every long explanation is riddled with short sayings and catchy phrases. As the interview moves into discussing Cameron’s career path, Lipton draws a comparison between the films of Cameron and Stephen Spielberg; specifically, the treatment of the reveal of the monsters in Jaws and Aliens. He will compare the directors at least three more times before the evening is over.
The interview segment of the episode taping lasts three and a half hours. During that time Cameron opens up entirely about every aspect of his career. Only once was he timid, when Lipton started asking him questions about Piranha II: The Spawning. The story behind the film — how he ended up its director, snuck into the studio at night to edit, and wound up broke and stranded in Italy – is fantastic. For anyone who ever wondered how a man that would go on to make some of the greatest films of all time ended up on a project like that, your questions will be answered.
To summarize the entire interview now would be a disservice to not just The Actors Studio but to the experience that I am sure watching the interview will be. For that reason I will include only what I believe was one of Cameron’s greatest moments.
While talking about pitching movie ideas to producers Cameron offered, “You always give them something you know they won’t agree to so the rest of it seems reasonable.” While laughing the students hurriedly wrote down what Cameron had just said. Picking up on it, Lipton joked, “You see the pens? They’re taking notes!” Cameron replied, “Go out and feed into the night my children!” It was a great moment and resulted in roars of laughter and applause from the audience.
Towards the end, Lipton asks Lang to talk about what it was like working with Cameron on the set of Avatar. In a thick, no-bullshit accent Lang talks about Cameron’s go-for-broke style and his fearless directing. He cites Cameron’s willingness to climb up ladders and “get physical” on set as one of Cameron’s great attributes. Listening to Lang speak is eerie. The man sounds exactly like he did in Avatar.
One of Lipton’s final questions, which was quite possibly the most awkward moment of the night, revolved around the Navi. When talking about the design of the characters Lipton, with the straightest face in Hollywood, asked, "Why do the Navi have breasts?" Once the audiences laughter subsided, and Cameron himself stopped laughing, he responded, "Because this is a movie for human people." The crowd roared again and Cameron went on to explain further his philosophy of the Navi character design. It boiled down to, "lets focus on things that can create otherness that are not off-putting." Just another great example of the wonderful moments created by Lipton’s deadpan interview style and Cameron’s sense of wit. The entire evening was littered with many just like it.
The Main Event
After Lipton is finished with his questions, there is a 10 – 15 minute break. Once it ends, the guest returns to take questions from the students enrolled in the MFA program. Although all are welcomed to stay and listen, only the students are allowed to ask questions. Tonight, surprisingly, a majority of the audience leaves following the main interview. All but three or four from the NBC contingent remain and only about one third of the audience.
Every question and answer segment begins the same way. Lipton himself will start by asking ten questions based off of a Proust Questionnaire. This is in the same manner that Lipton’s inspiration, French TV host Bernard Pivot, used to ask on his show.
Those questions never change:
1. What is your favorite word?
2. What is your least favorite word?
3. What turns you on?
4. What turns you off?
5. What sound or noise do you love?
6. What sound or noise do you hate?
7. What is your favorite curse word?
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?
Following those questions, the floor is opened to students. When Jen first told me that she had a ticket with my name on it I immediately asked her if she would ask a question for me. Her response was crushing.
“You only get one.”
One question. One question to ask James “King of the World” Cameron. James Cameron! The man who has made the two highest grossing films of all time! The man who just revolutionized the entire filmmaking industry! The guy who made Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, and Titanic! One question! There was only one day until the taping. What the hell would I ask with one question!?
I spent every single hour of the day thinking about it. The problem consumed every second of spare thought I had. I mulled over podcasts and interviews online, some dating back to 2007. I scoured geek film sites like Slashfilm and AintItCoolNews looking for inspiration. I read pages of questions that fans had submitted to Cameron through Time magazine. I Googled until I thought my eyes would bleed and my fingers hurt. One question!
On the day of the taping I still had no idea what I was going to ask. I’d written down some questions about acting and technology, but nothing that I was happy with. I figured it was better I go in there with something than nothing at all, but I had mostly given up hope.
By chance, online that day, I read an article in Esquire magazine all about film critic and Pulitzer Prize winner Roger Ebert. It was written by a man named Chris Jones and discussed how Ebert was spending his twilight years. I thought the article itself was fantastic and found Ebert’s story inspiring. Here was a man who, as he got closer and closer to the end of his life, found a way to not only continue writing and doing what he loved, but do it more than ever before.
With death fresh on the mind I left work and, while on the subway to the theater, got my lightning bolt from on high. Ten words, that’s all it was.
Lipton and Cameron came back onstage to applause and took their seats. Lipton ran through his list of questions quickly. The only one Cameron struggled on was, “What is your least favorite sound?” (Spoiler alert: it’s his dog barking at 3 am.) Finishing his part of the segment, Lipton did what he always does: rose and left the spotlight for a chair in the dark on stage right. It was time for the main event.
Many of the students asked variations of the same two questions, “What do you look for in an actor?” and “What is your writing/directing process like?” One girl asked if Cameron thought the technology used for Avatar could be used for a TV show, another asked him to talk about his philosophy on using movies to make political statements. All were good questions and Cameron took the time to answer each thoroughly. For every answer he looked the student right in the eye as if he was speaking only to them. It was impressive. For a man that many have labeled an asshole, he seemed pretty down-to-earth and personable.
Jockeying for the microphone during the question and answer session was a bit of a struggle I hadn’t expected. At the previous interview the students raised their hands when they had a question and someone with a microphone gave it to them. This time, it was up to the students to fend for themselves. The mics were passed from person to person and a game of “who gets it next” commenced. Before the session, Jen had arranged when she would get the mic with the other students. Now, as the hushed game went on, it looked like our question might not get asked at all. Thankfully, Jen isn’t the type of person to let something like that happen. After the mic evaded her for a second time she got vocal.
“I was supposed to have it next!” She said in a loud whisper. The dude sitting in front of us quickly passed it back. I can’t be positive, but I think Cameron even heard her from the stage. After Cameron was done answering the question before her Jen stood up, introduced herself, and in the tone of voice she uses when she’s nervous as all hell asked,
“How would you like to be remembered as a filmmaker?”
For only a half a second, for the first time that night, Cameron was stunned speechless. The first word out of his mouth…
I think his surprise had to do with a number of things. First, although it seems like a simple question, asking someone how they would like to be remembered carries the implication that they are thinking about themselves post-mortem. For a guy like Cameron, who seems to be in good health, who has just seen his latest movie skyrocket into history, and who isn’t that old, I’m sure it’s not something he’s been thinking about. Secondly, all the other questions coming his way tonight had been about his process, his techniques, acting and so forth. None were about how he thought of himself. Third, a question like that could have so many answers even the quickest mouth would need some time to think about it.
Cameron’s answer to this question turned out to be the shortest of the night. Since even a short answer from James Cameron is an epic one I only managed to write down the first and last things he said.
“A populous filmmaker that made films that people like… The tabulation of rewards isn’t important just that people remember the movie… maybe even only a part of the movie.”
Jen thanked him for his answer and the rest of the questioning continued. As I sat there – taking notes and listening to Cameron’s other answers – the magnitude of his response to my question escaped me. Now, at this moment, I struggle to understand its simplicity: to be a filmmaker that made films people liked. Somehow, that just seems too plain. Shouldn’t the man who has revolutionized the film industry want more? Shouldn’t the god of all that is motion picture seek a higher goal than just mere remembrance? It just seems too common, too regular for a man whose life’s works have touched millions and millions of people.
Yet, in another way, it is the most appropriate answer I could have expected. Inside all of us, no matter what we do with our lives, is the desire to be remembered after we are gone, to have maybe changed the world in some small way. To know that even those men who seem untouchable; those whose achievements are so great, whose lives are so blessed that they have achieved a status nothing short of legendary, are still just men is comforting. I will never direct a film that grosses over a billion dollars. I will never be interviewed by James Lipton or asked questions by a group of students eager to hear my every word. I might not even live long enough to see the next great leap in entertainment. What I will do is share in a common desire that seems more extraordinary to me now than it ever has before. I will live and live well, if for nothing else than to be remembered.
This post was edited by Keara Driscoll and Kerry Sullivan.