ONLINE BONUS: Our exclusive interview with Jason Alexander continues from the print and iPad versions of City & Shore Magazine here:
City & Shore: You’re coming to the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival with the musical Lucky Stiff. Talk about the making of the film.
Jason Alexander: Making the film was a lot of fun. It was an ambitions endeavor because musicals, by their very nature, are more complicated, require much more filming. You’re either watching the playback or you’re lip-syncing the playback. Lots of things have to coordinate, but the cast was a delight – just fun, lovely people. We all knew we were making a frothy confection, so you had to walk onto the set with your sense of humor and silliness intact and just go for it. There’s not a lot of time, there’s not a big budget, so you had to get things in relatively few takes. Chris Ashley [director of the 2010 Tony Award-winning Best Musical Memphis] just was a delightful director. He knew what he was going for, had done so much preparatory homework.
C&S: It must be very different performing in a musical without an audience.
JA: It is. With musicals and comedy, two things are in play. You’re relying on your instinct about what is right because you have no feedback to confirm it other than from your director, so if you haven’t had a fair amount of experience to know how audiences generally respond, you could be a little adrift, I think. But also with comedy and musical film, you’re putting your performance, your timing, in the hands of the director and the editor. On stage I can nuance certain things because they’re completely at my control. I can reconfigure the way I want to get a laugh or reconfigure the way I want to express a line of lyric. But once I go into the recording studio and I prerecord that song, I’m locked into that performance, and whatever happens spontaneously on the set still has to match that performance that I did before I ever got on the set. So there are lots of elements at play that are particularly challenging for the actors.
C&S: What do you most enjoy about film festivals?
JA: I think they’re best when they have a community that is interested in all kinds of film and art, and you’re being allowed to see films that may not be seen anywhere else. Some of the best film festivals are showing films that are risky ventures in that they may not have an obvious audience. And the audience that attends is particularly drawn to those kinds of entertainments.
C&S: They represent the democratization of film.
JA: Yes, in many ways. I went back to Boston University the other day to teach and do Q&A work with the students. We were talking about exactly that. The ability to make filmed pieces is now in the hands of just about everybody, which means you have a lot more people out there with stories they want to tell. The whole process of making filmed entertainment is very much democratized. Anyone can do it, and everyone is doing it to some degree.
C&S: Speaking of democratic movements, you have been politically active, including campaigning for President Barack Obama. And you have long been a supporter of OneVoice, working to empower mainstream Israelis and Palestinians to forge a solution to their conflict. Have you thought of running for office?
JA: Yeah, there was a time – and it still happens intermittently – when the Democrats come to me and say, ‘Are you sure you don’t want to get into this game?’ There are problems with it for me. Some of them are really practical. One is, my real name is not Jason Alexander, and if I’m going to become a politician, I have to reintroduce myself to the word as Jay Greenspan. To the majority of the world, I’m George Costanza, and nobody would vote for George Costanza. I would have to do so much work to uncouple people’s impression of who I am from who I have played. I don’t know that I want to take the time to do that job in an election.
I don’t think I have the emotional makeup to be a politician. I’m not a great compromiser on things that I passionately feel are right and wrong, and politics – although we wouldn’t know it anymore from the way our current leaders engage – politics is a game of compromise. That’s when things get done – when people are willing to compromise and accept a little bit of bad to get a little bit more good. I’m not very good at that game. I kind of see things as black and white. It’s a character flaw of mine. As my friend Al Franken has said to me, I could probably get more done being outside the political system and working as an activist than he can get done from the inside. Once you’re in that game, there are all kinds of restrictions. Right now, at least, the people on the outside are more capable of forcing change than the people on the inside.
Your son, Gabe, seems to be following in your footsteps.
Gabe has, since he was a toddler, been drawn to the stage, and he was a theater arts major at Yale. He came out of that with a really interesting set of skills. Aside from being just a lovely actor, he has become profoundly good at improv and writing comedy sketch material. He is a talented young composer, and he has done quite a bit of composing for original theater material. I don’t think he wants my career necessarily, but he certainly would like to be in my industry, and I think he has a good shot at it. My younger son, Noah, has far more intellectual pursuits at the moment, and he’s also a very, very, very good writer. I think that will be a large part of his life. I always think of writing as being a kissing cousin to being a performer. You’re just doing it in your head instead of out on a stage.
What advice have you given Gabe about the entertainment industry?
When I went to school, the hope was that we would come out and be prepared for when someone would give us a job. What I’ve been saying to the students I talk to, including Gabe, is to come out of school and make jobs. Make things. You’re an artist. Artists make things. It’s wonderful when they get permission, but most of the time they’re in their studios, in their practice rooms, in their barns making paintings and music and shows and movies. They now have the technology and the ability to be complete auteurs, to make the things they want to make and form their own companies. My advice to him was, if you want to be an artist, don’t let anyone keep you from doing so on any day of your life. Don’t wait to be given permission, and that’s exactly what he is doing. [Alexander recently tweeted about Gabe’s new Twitter page @TheIdiotChimney, which features video sketches he produces with a friend.]
C&S: You have had success playing poker, even winning Bravo’s Celebrity Poker Showdown in 2006. What is it about the game that attracts you?
JA: It is an actor’s game, to some degree. It involves trying to understand people and the way they think and the way they respond. I’m not a huge gambler, but there’s a thrill to, you know, trying to separate a fool from his money. I have always loved magic, and it puts the cards back in my hand. It plays into things that I have an interest in: a little bit of magic, a little bit of social exchange, a little bit of acting, a little bit of competition. Other than that, I would have to go to my psychiatrist and ask, ‘Why do I like this game so much?’
C&S: What is your strongest impression from the Seinfeld years?
JA: We, for nine years, truly enjoyed each other. Laughed every day, and an awful lot. It was a joy, an absolute joy to go to work every day, even when the show wasn’t particularly successful. Because we started so humbly, I’m constantly amazed at the impact and the longevity that the show has had. We were blessed to be in an environment where shows like ours had an opportunity to grow an audience and have a relationship with them. That ability is pretty much gone from television these days. It was a blessing of personalities; it was a blessing of material; it was a blessing of the times we were in and the landscape of television at the time. All of it was such lightning in a bottle that none of us can account for, but that all of us are deeply grateful for.
C&S: To what do you attribute the success of your 32-year marriage to Daena Title?
JA: Well, there’s a trick. You’ve got to pick the right person when you start. If you do that, the rest is pretty damn easy. Daena and I sort of defied the odds. We both got married to each other when we were young. I was 22 when we got married. Gabe is 22, and if he said, ‘Hey Dad, I’m getting married,’ I think I would have some words of warning for him because generally that doesn’t seem to work out. As you mature and your life changes, you run the risk of becoming different people and growing apart. Daena and I have never had that issue. All the changes in who we are and what we want to do in life and how we see the world have only made [our relationship] richer with time. She’s still my favorite person in the world, and there’s nobody else I’d rather be going through this life with.