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Alan Alda

In his memoirs, 2006's Never Have Your Dog Stuffed and the new Things I Overheard While Talking To Myself (due out Sept. 4), Alan Alda talks more about stage acting, speechmaking, and his general thoughts on life than the film and TV roles that made him a household name: as one of the stars (and writers and directors) of the seminal TV comedy M*A*S*H, as a featured player in Woody Allen's Crimes And Misdemeanors, Everyone Says I Love You, and Manhattan Murder Mystery, as a creepy killer in Whispers In The Dark, as a prickly senator in The Aviator, and most recently, as a hard-bitten Republican candidate on The West Wing. In print, Alda comes across as thoughtful and abstract, absorbed in the minutia of acting and pondering acting, both as a vocation and as an exercise in creativity. Onscreen, he mainly comes across as distinctive, memorable, and hard-working. While promoting his latest role as a hard-driving newspaper sports editor in Rod Lurie's Resurrecting The Champ, Alda recently talked with The A.V. Club about picking his roles, picking his directors, picking the topics he writes about, and picking the battles that still scare him.

The A.V. Club: How did your role in Resurrecting The Champ come about?

Alan Alda: I don't remember. I guess my agent suggested me to Rod Lurie, or maybe he asked for me. That's a pretty boring answer, but it's the way the question mostly gets answered. It's just part of the business. I mean, once we got together, we had to find out whether we were interested in working together. And we hit it off right away. I like him very much. And he's a very good director, good for an actor to work with.

AVC: At this point in your career, do you ever chase roles, or do they mostly just come to you?

AA: Yeah, it's mostly that. And even among those, I'm in a very lucky point in my life, where I only do things that really interest me. And it's usually not the part. I don't think I ever did something because I just wanted to do that part. It's usually cause I'm interested in the writing, and want to be part of that project.

AVC: You normally meet with directors and decide whether you want to work with them?

AA: Yeah. In a way, people audition each other. You get a sense, usually—it's very rare that you say… Although that has happened. When I did The Aviator, they said "You want to do it?" and I said "Yes," and that was it. I did make one call to Marty Scorsese to see what he meant by some of the stage directions, and he said "Oh, ignore the stage directions." [Laughs.] So there was no feeling each other out there, it was just a question of "Does this pro want to work with that pro?" But very often, if you know it's going to be a small movie, and the working conditions are going to be a little harder, you want to make sure that your personalities won't clash or something.

AVC: It's a small role for you. Do you primarily just consider what the final project will look like?

AA: Yeah, that's it. I don't really worry about the size of the part much any more. It's nice to have more time to work on the character, and to have big scenes to play. But if there's something playable there, and if it's interesting to do, then that's nice. There's also an advantage to just going in for a couple of weeks, and coming away with something that's worth doing.

AVC: If you have time to get into the character, do you prep for your roles?

AA: We did a little bit for Resurrecting The Champ. I remember sitting in a living room with several friends who had come over to dinner, and I realized most of them had been in journalism so long that there were a couple hundred years of experience there, so I was asking them what it was like for a sports editor in his daily life. And they were suggesting that there should always be someone coming into his office asking about something. And he would be checking the layout of the columns. We incorporated that kind of thing. But Rod Lurie has experience in the newsroom himself, so he was onto most of that.

AVC: Without seeing Lurie direct, how could you tell you wanted to work with him?

AA: Well, one thing is, you see how well they relate. If, when they talk to you, they're really talking to you. And it's a little bit like speed-dating, you know? How do you know if you aren't going to want to have dinner with somebody, just spending a short time, or you have a meal with them, how do you know you're going to want to see them again? Or let them touch your elbow, you know? But there's also, you can see when you talk to somebody—and it works the other way, too, when I directed movies. Sometimes the most important thing was not a reading that an actor would do, but a conversation I'd have with him where I could see what he had to draw on to play the character. Who were they? Who were they compared to the character? And as an actor, when I talk with a director, I'm interested to know what the director sees in it, what are they interested in, what's the meaning of this story that they hope to find.

AVC: You've worked for some very big-name directors, including Scorsese and Woody Allen. Are there people you would work with more because they have that kind of reputation than because they meet your personal criteria?

AA: Really top-notch directors, I've often worked with them just to see how they work. I wasn't knocked out by the script of a movie called Mad City, but I was really interested to watch Costa-Gavras. I think he's one of the great directors. And I liked what I had to do in The Aviator, but the chance of just working with and watching Scorsese was a big plus.

AVC: How did his method compare to yours as a director?

AA: Well, everybody, the really good ones, take who they are and turn that into their style of directing, I think. I mean, Woody Allen, for instance, he does very little shooting from different angles. And when you shoot from different angles—until lately, it's usually all been from one angle, one master shot. And I think that's because he doesn't like to see things over and over again. He doesn't like to say the same thing over and over again, he doesn't like to watch the same scene. And if you shoot it from different angles, you have to watch it each time you shoot, and you have to light it, and it takes forever. He never did that. He didn't like to talk to people, so he didn't talk to the actors. And a certain kind of spontaneity came out of that. So he took who he was and made it a style. And Scorsese loves to talk to people. And he talks to the actors in a very upbeat, positive way. He's full of chatter, and in the gentlest way, he makes you realize that there's another way to do it, so you go in that direction. The different personalities lead to different shooting styles.

AVC: Who's been best for you to work with in terms of matching your own personality?

AA: I had a great time with Scorsese, and that worked out great, because… I did well enough to get nominated, so that, you'd have to put that at the top of the list. But I just had another terrific time with a director who's had a lot of experience directing on the stage, though this was his first film. Terry Kinney, his name is. And it was great, because he's an actor and a director, and you know he's really watching, and he knows what's going on in your head. He's a collaborator, he's right in there with you. I've worked with some other first-time directors who didn't know, really, what you went through to get a performance, and didn't know how to talk to you as an actor. It's like if you were building a house, and you said to the carpenter, "Can't you hammer that in with your saw?" or something. You need somebody to talk your language a little bit.

AVC: Do you think that roughly the same disciplines make a great stage director and a great film director, or are they very different?

AA: I don't know. That's an interesting question. I've seen it work both ways. I mean, I thought that the first movie Nicholas Hytner did, The Madness Of King George, was a brilliant first film, and he got it all from directing on the stage. I think you gain a lot if you've directed on the stage. If you're directing your first film, and you've never directed anyplace, then you're not as far along, because the technical demands take a lot of your time, and if you don't know how to communicate with the actors, then it's very common to just let them flounder. And you sit behind the camera, glued to the monitor, and just worry about shots. But a movie is not shots. It's something happening in the shots.

AVC: What about your own directorial career? You haven't directed in a while.

AA: Yeah, I don't really feel like it any more.

AVC: Do you think you're done with it?

AA: You never know. I don't know. It's just not something I feel like doing now.

AVC: Do you see any common thread between the film projects you've directed, in terms of what draws you?

AA: No, no. Only that they seem interesting, and they seem well-written. I never had a plan for the thematic interest, ever. I think life is more interesting than that. It keeps changing, it keeps coming up with new things.

AVC: You have a very distinctive voice, and a fairly distinctive speech pattern. Does that ever create problems for you as an actor trying to disappear into a role?

AA: Hmm. No. [Laughs.] Not that I'm aware of, no. And I alter that a little bit, if it really seems I have to. I just played a guy from Missouri in this movie that I just finished, Diminished Capacity. I had a Missouri accent. I guess I sound a little different. But that's a problem anytime you've seen an actor a lot, you see things that you've seen before. Often you see posture—the way a person walks is so distinctive that software can identify someone from a satellite by the way they walk. And those things are not necessarily changeable. I mean, a really great actor, in a lucky performance, can transform himself or herself. I've seen actors do that. But often it's a mechanical transformation, which isn't as interesting, and you've got to be careful how you go about something like that, I think.


AVC: Does being that well-known, or having that distinctive a voice, come in handy? There's a story that you tell in your new memoir about calling up the Hershey Company and having them send over candy bars for the firefighters at Ground Zero in New York. Presumably the people at Hershey didn't say "You're kidding, you aren't Alan Alda. You don't sound like Alan Alda."

AA: Well, there's no question that it seems to be distinctive. A couple of times, I've called 411 for information and they've given it to me and said "There you go, Mr. Alda." [Laughs.] Which was kind of shocking. But it certainly helped in getting the candy bars, because I was able to get through to the right person pretty quickly. And if I have to put two people together, to help a philanthropy project or something like that, I'm grateful for it. Shortens the time it takes. There are some upsides to it.

AVC: People who grew up on M*A*S*H still think of you as Hawkeye Pierce—it's the signature role that comes up in every piece about you. And since then, you've played a lot of hard-ass, villainous, snarky, or sexual roles, as though you're playing against type. But you've said that you don't really think about your career, you think about each particular role. You never consider continuity, or your image?

AA: No, I never thought about my image. It interests me that there are people who do, that they seem to be methodical about it. Maybe things would have gone differently for me in some ways if I had. Maybe there were a couple of times when I got sick of hearing that I was such a nice guy, I might have done one or two parts thinking "Ah, this will fix that." But it never does. I mean, the thing is, if people see you a certain way, they'll see you that way, maybe forever. What I always wanted to get seen as was as a good actor, when it was the acting I was doing. When I'm writing, I want to try to be seen as a good writer. Not as somebody with a particular idea to sell, or something like that.

AVC: At this point, M*A*S*H was more than 20 years ago. No doubt you have fans who've never seen it.

AA: Yeah, and there are also people who come up to me and tell me that they watch it all the time, though they weren't born when we went off the air. It's amazing.

AVC: Is it at all liberating to have fans who only know you from The West Wing, or ER, or Woody Allen films?

AA: Mmm, no, no. I mean, I did all those things. It's just interesting—when I go to France, I'm known mainly from the Woody Allen movies. And it amazes me that people come up to me and recognize me from only having seen two or three of his movies. It's so interesting how movies register on people. If I had been in two or three episodes of a television show, I'd have been seen by more people. But it wouldn't have registered in the same way. You know, there's something about the big screen, in the dark, I think, that does something to our brains.

AVC: Your memoirs are more philosophical than autobiographical—you mostly talk about what was going on in your head or your heart during various periods of your life, so you often don't talk about many of the roles or shows you're most known for. Did you ever have any interest in writing just about what it was like to make M*A*S*H, or The West Wing?

AA: No. No, that's exactly the kind of thing I didn't want to do. I didn't want to do an illustrated résumé. It doesn't interest me. This thing of, "I did this, then I did that." It's like songwriters onstage: "And then I wrote a little song that goes like this." At best, it's self-aggrandizing. I wanted to write something that people would enjoy reading, that they'd have a reading experience of some kind. I wanted to do a piece of writing. I didn't want to just talk about myself. [Laughs.] I mean, I talked plenty about myself, of course, but that was because those were the stories I had to tell. There was, I thought, an interesting overall story I had to tell, which was, in the first book, how this guy turns into a person, or tries to become a person.

AVC: Do you see those two shows as career high points?

AA: On The West Wing, doing that live debate was one of the most exciting moments of my professional life. I loved that. Of course, M*A*S*H changed my life completely, and I talk more about M*A*S*H in my second book. If you put them together, I talk plenty about it, I think. There probably would be some interest on the part of many people in hearing me tell endless anecdotes about what it was like on the set, but that wasn't what I was writing about. It wasn't like I was trying to avoid anything. It's an easy thing to go to. "You know me as this, so I'll write about that." I'd rather write about something that you don't think you know about me. I don't have to write about me, I just have to write about something that I understand.

AVC: You also talk in that first book about how you're baffled about the way people care about celebrity lives.

AA: I talk a lot about that in the second book, too. There's a whole chapter on it there. I think it's interesting. I don't think we all quite get it. In the second book, I talk about how I discussed that in front of an audience of psychiatrists, and I really had the impression that they were thinking of some aspects of that for the first time. As much as they had explored how the mind works, it seems to me they hadn't given a great deal of thought to this special response people have to others who are well-known.

AVC: In the same sense, you tell a story in the new book about how when the husband of a friend of yours hurt himself, she wanted to call you for help because she associates you with doctors. Which is sort of reminiscent of Leonard Nimoy's book, I Am Not Spock, where fans write to him and ask him to use his alien powers on their behalf. Do you get that kind of transference often?

AA: Well, I got those people sending me suicide notes when M*A*S*H was on the air. I suppose that had something to do with the fact that I was playing a doctor. I mostly don't get people coming to me with their gall-bladder problems. But there is the idea, still, that because Hawkeye was so compassionate and wanted to save people's lives, some of that sort of slopped over onto me in people's minds.

AVC: What about with The West Wing? Do people expect you to be a Republican?

AA: No. I got a lot of people saying, "I'm a Democrat, but I would have voted for you." I went to hear a lecture that a friend of mine was giving in Washington to Congressional committees. When I walked in the door, there were a lot of young Congressional aides standing in the front, chatting, and when they saw me, it was a little bit like I was a rock star to them. Here was an imaginary politician who'd been prominent on television, and they really responded to that. Understandably—they write these stories so they'll be emotionally engaging, so the audience is bound to integrate that character as an emotional experience. They have a response to the actor who's playing it. It's hard not to assume that he doesn't have some of those qualities. I'm watching some of The Sopranos now, catching up on the season, a couple of hours a night. To some extent, I think I'm watching real people, too, and I know that it's an illusion.

AVC: You talk in the new book about how one of the ways you look for meaning is by doing things that terrify you. What kind of things terrify you these days?

AA: Well, getting up in front of a lot of people to talk about something that I don't seem qualified to talk about, or that I'm not qualified to talk about, is scary. [Laughs.] It makes me research it carefully, and it makes me choose my words and images carefully, and choose the point of view that I'm going to come in on carefully, so that I'm not arrogant or pretentious, but finding something to say that brings some of my experience to bear on it, to see if I can understand it better, and to say something that's worth listening to. That's just fun, it's a fun problem to solve. It's scary, and it wouldn't be as much fun if it wasn't scary. It's the way I have of knowing I'm alive.

AVC: You once considered running for public office. What stopped you?

AA: Well, I never really thought about it. I was able to decide not to do it within milliseconds. I was asked to do it a couple of times, while I was on M*A*S*H. It seemed like the only qualification that they seemed to think I had was that I was so well-known, I could get elected. That seemed like a tragic picture of politics in America, maybe in the world.

AVC: Well, because of your roles, you come across as compassionate and intelligent, two things people don't necessarily see in politicians these days.

AA: There is something weird, isn't there, that by the time they finish running, no matter how much they start out possessing those things, they don't have them any more by the time they're ready to go into the office. [Laughs.] They've been diluted so thoroughly.

AVC: You've won most of the major entertainment awards, but you tend to talk in interviews about how none of them matter as much as honing your craft.

AA: Yeah, I think that's true.

AVC: How do you keep your personal perspective on your progress in your craft when you're a celebrity in an industry that survives on flattery and ego-stroking?

AA: Well, I don't judge my progress by what people tell me, I judge it by what I see. When I see it onscreen, or I experience it on the stage, I know if I can do certain kinds of things that I couldn't do a few years ago. Things I could do, I can do better. My concentration is much deeper and richer than it was when I began. So I see myself improving every year or so.

AVC: What are you proudest of accomplishing, personally?

AA: You know, I really don't think I get proud of things. I think I enjoy them. There are moments that I've enjoyed… I laugh at this, sometimes, to myself. When I think back to what are the moments I've enjoyed the most, they're things you might not have thought of, or would even know about. There were moments in Glengarry Glen Ross on the stage that were just terrific, that I really enjoyed. There are a couple of moments in the movie I just did, in Rod Lurie's picture. There was a time when I was a guest actor in a show called The Play What I Wrote, which was two British comedians that came to Broadway. I did the show with them about 20 times, just walking in and staying onstage for most of the second act. It was stupid comedy, really dumb-ass comedy, and I had the best time. I really enjoyed it. To say that was a highlight in my acting career sounds odd, because you don't even know what it was, but I love it. I did a small play in a theatre that holds about 400 people. A two-character play with a lovely young woman. I had one of the best times ever. It usually comes in moments. It's just that moment where that happened, where you're sailing. You're flying. I think I say in the second book that there's an ecstasy to that. You go through this whole life, hoping to get that ecstatic moment a few times.