Back in the early 1990s, one of my closest friends at the University of Delaware was a kid named Scott Capro.
As freshmen, we lived across the hall from one another. As juniors and seniors, we roomed together. Scott was (and still is) terrific, because he was blessed with a truly detailed knowledge of my two favorite subjects—sports and music.
While I was pretty strong in the one area (sports), my musical range was somewhat limited to 1980s hip-hop and Hall and Oates. Well, thanks to Scott, I came to know the music of Elvis Costello and Pearl Jam; of John Wesley Harding and … Human Radio.
Yes, Human Radio. Back in the day, Scott would regularly stroll down to Main Street and spend hours inside Rainbow Records, seeking out the next great thing. He’d listen and listen and listen and listen before ultimately plopping down $20 for a couple of CDs. On one particular day he randomly picked up Human Radio’s eponymous 1990 release, then brought it back to the dorm. I remember little of the album, save for a song named, “These are the Days”—which I have probably listened to, oh, 700 times.
I digress. Because of Scott Capro and Rainbow Records and life’s random weirdness, today’s 277th Quaz Q&A is Ross Rice, the lead singer and keyboardist for (the recently reunited) Human Radio and a man who can speak on the highs and lows of the music business; on the beauty of a well-constructed song; on returning from the depths and playing out of love (as opposed to seeking profit).
Ross Rice, you’re the hairiest (and coolest) Quaz to date …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Ross, so one of my all-time favorite songs is “These Are The Days”—which has been a staple in my life for the past 25 years or so. What can you tell me about the tune? The origins? The meaning? Do you dig it as much as I do? Are you sick of it?
ROSS RICE: Love that you love it, Jeff. Despite it’s precocious cleverness, I’ve always felt that that tune had some legs to it. That was one of those really nice sunny mornings on the stoop in Memphis, coffee and cat, got a good little guitar progression going, got a little visit from some nice young fella from the neighborhood Jehovah’s Witness church (I think our house was something of a finishing school for them, we could be quite merciless, especially on LSD), and out it popped out nice and fresh. Don’t really know what it means actually, just a little slice of life with a side of Nietzsche. I’ll still pick it publicly now and then, it’s worn much better than most of the others…
J.P.:Your band had one hit. “Me and Elvis,” which came out in 1990 and reached No, 32 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks chart. And I wonder whether you were at all like the baseball player who wins the World Series as a rookie and presumes it will always be this way. How did y’all respond to having a hit? Did you assume there would be more to come? And are you at all haunted/dismayed by a “one-hit wonder” sort of pegging?
R.R.:Weeellll, I wouldn’t really call it a “hit” per se, it got some love from morning jocks who with the gentle prodding of our esteemed label pushed the rock up the hill a ways. Let’s just say I do kind of regret writing the tune, which originally was a goofy little ska thing we had some fun with our Memphis peeps doing. But lo and behold our producer David Kahne (whom I still admire greatly) saw it as some kind of existential treatise on the demise of youth and rock ‘n’ roll. So he tarted it up while serious-o-fying it. Then of course the label went Memphis=Elvis, and we had our first single chosen thusly. Can’t blame em, makes sense from the marketing standpoint! But it would require a follow up too keep us from “the pegging.”
“My First Million” was scheduled for a second single, had video treatment and director lined up, got top five phones in every test market, but then the president of the label saw us in New York City, and reportedly said “Who the f*** are these guys?” So we didn’t get to find out if there could be more to come, it was shortly thereafter all tour support dried up, and we were offered a graceful exit. At that point we were damaged goods, nobody else would go for us. Such is the harsh reality of our groovy little industry!
J.P.:Your band is from Memphis. I started as a music writer in Nashville in the mid-1990s, and it was near-impossible for rock bands to emerge from the city, because the suffocating cloak of the country industry was overwhelming. How about the rock music scene in Memphis? Was it strong back then? Did you have to overcome musical perceptions of the town?
R.R.: At that time (late 80s/early 90s) there was a crazy signing glut going on in Memphis, and I think all over the country. We did a producer showcase at one point where four out of 12 bands were offered major label deals. And yeah, there were some really great bands happening, and the club scene was improving, more venues, people out enjoying live music. We found ourselves well booked in Memphis and the surrounding areas. But once we were out of the south, the Memphis thing could be problematic. And we did not sound at all like a band from Memphis with our un-sexy synthesizers and violins. Lots of reviews of our record or shows started with “I was hoping for some great new Memphis-style music from this new band. Instead we get … blah blah blah … I’m so disappointed … they suck!” No. Miss All-Stars, Grifters, Oblivians, Al Kapone, Three Six Mafia … bands like these had “Memphis-ness” we somehow did not. But we weren’t trying for anything like that, I had just done six years of R&B, two years in a house band with Duck Dunn. I’ve played Green Onions on organ with Cropper and Dunn seven times. Didn’t feel the need to elaborate on that with my music!
R.R.: I was in the Hudson Valley of New York for the last decade while the other guys were all in Nashville still. A dear friend of ours asked if a reunion might be possible for a benefit, I made the trip, and we had a blast! We had broken the band up to keep our friendship intact, so it was effortless. This started a long-distance writing process, where I came to town occasionally, and we’d set up at Castle Hyrkania (Pete’s place, available through AirBnB!) with a single mic in omni at the center, and goof off, come up with cool stuff. I took those recordings and made things out of them, which we developed. It was an organic mutual process, and everyone contributed. Then I moved back to the area to start school, and we had enough material to do a record, so we did a Kickstarter, overestimated our appeal and fell short, started over on Indiegogo, and found ourselves with a cozy little budget to record and manufacture a small run of CDs and vinyl. It’s been pretty hilarious with the emails, we’re learning how to be a record label by screwing up constantly! Our emails the other day concerning bar codes were epic.
Hopes and goals? Ah, none really other that servicing our donors, doing some record release gigs in select towns, getting it on CD Baby and the World Wide Interwebs, and working the social media somewhat (God, we suck at it, but we’re gonna try). We’re not getting in the back of the Penske van again rolling around Mississippi trying to get discovered anymore. We just wanted to make the record to prove that we were still relevant to ourselves and immediate fans and friends. So far so good. Oddly enough, we are taking a meeting with a label guy next week who had just heard the new record, wants to buy us lunch. We do like lunch.
J.P.: I’m friendly with some guys from Blind Melon, and they signed a record deal back around the same time you guys did. And they insist it was REALLY easy back then; like deals were falling from the sky. True? False? How did you land the deal? And was being signed to a label all you’d hoped?
R.R.: See above. Yeah, I think it had something to do with performance royalty licensing, something that was changing over in 1990. Folks were getting signed left and right. But let me tell you nine out of 10 bands that were signed in that rush shared the same fate we did. It was a crazy and exciting time, really. Our manager leveraged a tentative offer from one label into getting us enough buzz that eventually an A&R guy from a huge label from L.A. flew into town, our people picked him up and brought him to Beale Street where we were set up in a blacked-out club, full PA and light show. He walked in, we started playing … 30 minutes later we stopped, he got up, got back in the car, and caught the next flight out. Three days later he called us up with an offer, and suggested David Kahne producing. Being Fishbone fanatics, we assented heartily. A publishing deal followed shortly thereafter, which was also quite nice.
For a little while it was pretty sweet, the record got good notice and airplay, some decent reviews (some quite scathing, too!). But once we got out on the road we got a better sense of where we stood with our label. Which was pretty uncertain ground … turned out we were a band signed by west coast A&R to an east-based label over the objections of the east coast A&R staff. We were kinda doomed from the gitgo.
R.R.: Hehe. Yeah, the previous night we had opened for the Allman Bros and George Thorogood in Phoenix. Got into L.A. the next day, made some rounds, even played “These Are The Days” at CNN. Taking the limo back to the Roxy, traffic was a bitch, but our Russian driver was savvy, knew the back ways. When we emerged on Sunset, we beheld the source of the congestion: Our beat-ass tour bus! When the driver was backing into the venue lot, the engine had fallen out of the mount onto the street, blocking Sunset Blvd. from 4 to 7 on a Friday afternoon! We jumped onto the bus to grab our crap while L.A. serenaded us with honks and curses, and went inside for soundcheck. Where it was revealed that an important piece of my gear was missing, left behind in Phoenix. Guys were dispatched to SIR for a replacement, I got to spend two hours re-programming the sucker. We might have been good that night, but I don’t remember. The stress and animosity has lingered on, however!
J.P.:When you see people like, oh, Justin Bieber or Demi Lovato selling out stadiums with their own brand of fabricated shit, do you at all get irked or annoyed? Do you ever wonder why plastic pop is so celebrated while musicianship is sorta ignored?
R.R.: Well, I used to I suppose. But it’s been ever thus. Might as well get pissed about bad weather or water being wet. There’s always been great music available, so we (Human Radio) have always had hope that if we could somehow also make great music, we too could have a place at the table, so to speak. What we’re seeing is a dying industry trying to figure how to survive by creating sure things. They’ve limited the allowable producers and songwriters to a select few (mostly Swedes and Atlantans, apparently), focus-grouped singers publicly with The Voice and Idol and the like. The pipeline to the Internet and radio is more direct now with only three large-scale companies left. They’ve taken a lot of the guesswork out of the business, which has drastically reduced innovation. Records don’t rely on great performances, haven’t for some time now. And a big artist performance relies less and less on the variable of music, it’s more about choreography, lights, action.
Personally, I’m well past the point of giving a fuck about the record business. I feel pretty damn good as a result, and I enjoy music so much more now.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
R.R.: Many great moments … so many of my favorite musical experiences were pretty modest really. My favorite gigs have often been last minute calls, when I didn’t know the people, didn’t know the music, expectations weren’t super high, but the music was fun, the house was full, the band/artist I worked with was really happy, the beer was plentiful and cold, and we all got paid. This has happened more than a few times, the most notable for me being with Isaac Hayes and Eek-A-Mouse. But when Human Radio played its record release in an un-air conditioned (thanks, light dude) Beale St. venue packed to the rafters with 300+ on a hot July night, that felt pretty damn good to me. Though I almost passed out from heat exhaustion three times, and photos of us doing our acapella encore look like we’ve been doused with a fire hose. The day we signed our record deal was pretty triumphant as well, I might add. The future looked awesome from that moment.
Lowest? The gig suck list is extensive, but I don’t visit it often. But HR playing for our lives before a roomful of A&R in ’92, playing at the top of our game with our best stuff, nobody interested, that was real hard. The day we broke up was really painful yet somehow a relief. But I’ve learned to laugh off major live problems. I inverted a crash cymbal in front of 60,000 Memphians playing the 1812 Overture at the Sunset Symphony. Ka-chunk! I got fired shortly thereafter. And had the good fortune to step on my cord and de-plug in front of 10,000 at Wembley Arena London with Peter Frampton. RIGHT on the first “bwah bwah bwah” solo in “Show Me The Way.” Stooped down, plugged back in, shrugged with a goofy “Who me?” grin and jumped right back in. The look Peter Frampton shot me mid-solo was delicious. And I got fired shortly thereafter.
J.P.:You were a young kid when Human Radio began. You’re no longer a young kid. How does aging impact your skillset as a musician? Playing keyboard? Singing? Are there things you can’t do any longer? Are there things you’re better at?
R.R.: I’ve been playing keyboard professionally all this time since, so I feel pretty confident with my game right now. Haven’t had any age-related difficulties, knock on wood. Not to sound boasty, but I think I’m a much better singer now that I was in 1990 too, less inclined to pull the Frank Zappa tone out! When I had my Very Sexy Trio in New York it was all about Fender Rhodes and falsetto, which I’m fortunate to have in my toolkit. My drumming and guitar playing have suffered, but I’ve been working on an MFA in Recording Arts and Technologies, so my tech chops are growing steadily. Editing/publishing/writing for a magazine for 4 ½ years in New York got me more disciplined as a writer. Teaching at the Paul Green Academy of Rock got me into wanting to pursue a future as a teacher. Raising two kids to adulthood made me waaay more patient. Guess I like to think I’m improving.
Back in 1990
J.P.:This isn’t an insult—I swear. But you have super long hair. Was that a conscious decision. Like, “I’m always gonna have long hair?” Did it just grow and grow? Ever think of slicing it all off?
R.R.: Kept forgetting to cut it. Naw, I’ve had long hair since elementary school in New Hampshire in the 70s, where I got so much shit for it even then, I knew I was onto something. Since then I’ve always liked the way it looks on me, and the wife still digs it. I’m one goofy motherfucker with short hair; my car door ears and Scotch super-schnozz need balancing out bigt ime.
J.P.:This might sound cliché, but why do so few bands last, uninterrupted, for more than a few years? Is it simply a matter of ego? More? Why did you guys break up?
R.R.: We broke up because we were friggin broke, dude. Gig monies were dropping, when we couldn’t pick up another deal our brand took a hit. The downward arc appeared, momentum shifted to the opposite direction. It was the damndest thing. One day one of the guys called a meeting, said he couldn’t afford to keep on. The rest of us decided to stop instead of replacing him. We broke up as good friends. But keep in mind, we were signed within a year and a half of forming. Our arc was accelerated in both directions by the times.
The fact that bands last at all is a miracle. You have a creative relationship that operates on one level, and a business relationship operating on another. Friendships and personalities are under great strain in this environment, where very few things are certain, and alliances are often tested. If you could figure out how to make a band that can survive the long haul (I’d say 5+ years), I imagine it would be similar to the process of assembling a successful team of astronauts for deep space runs. It’s rough out there, man.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROSS RICE:
• What do you think of Ray Rice?: Not holding up the name too well. Most of us Rices are sexy MFs who love women (some of us love men too, but I digress), and are righteously beloved by them in return. When polled, many of us Rices agree he should maybe switch to a less loving and nurturing moniker.
• My college roommate, Scott Capro, introduced me to your guys in 1991. Anything you’d like to say to him?: Hey Scott! How’s it going, man? Thanks for the spins on the victrola!
We have a new album for you, so let us know how we can get you one. Cheers!
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Oddly enough, no. Even when I was about to die in a plane crash coming into Telluride last year (with Mike Farris), when a storm suddenly swerved towards us resulting in a frightening 270 degree maneuver, and landing an hour away. The pilot was such a cocky dude, I just figured he could back it up when the shit hit the fan. And he did!
• One question you would ask Warren Moon were he here right now: How does it feel to be such a badass? Do you feel like you get the respect you deserve? You should.
• Five things you never want to smell again: Papermill, fast food coffee, Miller Lite, van farts on second week of run, cheap laundry detergent
• Why the name Human Radio?: We made a long-ass list. Lots of funny stuff. This was the only name that nobody said no to. I had written a song a long time ago about being in a cover band at a Holiday Inn (which I was) called “Human Radio” which caused me to submit it as a name. The song itself sucked, however.
• The guy next to me in this café refuses to cover his mouth as he coughs. What can I do to him?: Fart in his latte.
• Best joke you know?: Kye is the king of jokes in our group, I should get him to pipe one in here. I like stupid jokes that are long and pointless and require a performance. But here’s a quickie I’ve always enjoyed. Man walks into a bar with a duck on his head. Bartender says “what can I get ya?” Duck says “Can you get this guy off my ass?”
• Miley Cyrus calls and offers you $700,000 to tour with her this year as her backup singer. However, you have to wear a pink tutu and pierce your anus. You in?: Lemme get some miles in on the Stairmaster to purty up my quads and get my hemorrhoids cauterized. School can wait.
So if there’s ever been a Quaz who’s perfectly Quaz, it’s Roger Craig Smith.
He’s insanely prolific, but you don’t know him.
You recognize his voice, but not his face.
You’ve heard him speak countless times, but from myriad heads and mouths.
In other words, Smith is one of America’s most accomplished voice actors. He’s been in a gazillion TV shows and movies; has starred as every imaginable superhero; has been in a Megan Fox film without having actually appeared in a Megan Fox film. He also lives near a Trader Joe’s and seems to dig Demi Lovato.
Roger Craig Smith, speak up! You’re the 266th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So I’m gonna jump right in here. One of my absolute all-time favorite animated films is Wreck-It Ralph. You were the voice of “Sonic the Hedgehog.” So I’ve asked tons of actors through the years about preparing for roles and getting into character—but never a voice actor. So, looking back, what was the process. How do you figure out how to be Sonic? His motivations? His linguistic patterns? Etc?
ROGER CRAIG SMITH: Well, prepare for disappointment … I honestly don’t prepare all that much for voice over roles, depending on the situation. Specific accents, or some unique physical characteristic (which could affect the vocal performance) might require certain amounts of prep, but my experience has been preparation can often work against me. If I go into a session with a whole bunch of ideas for all my lines, performance choices loaded and ready to go, it’s not unusual to have those things shot down by a director or other creative individual on the other side of the glass (in the control room). Sonic came about in this manner. I remember auditioning for the character prior to Wreck-It Ralph and working very closely with the creative team from Sega on getting his cadence and voice print down. After landing the role from Sega, it’s slowly evolved into where it is today on Sonic Boom. When we started, they wanted to “age him up a bit,” so we played around with a little different vocal register. With his appearance in the Disney film, Rich Moore (director) sat in the session with me and basically let me do my thing with regard to the voice print for the character, but he had lots of suggestions on delivery and timing. THAT was a tremendous bit of good fortune for me that they decided to incorporate Sonic into a Disney film. Pure luck I happened to be doing the voice for Sega’s games at the time Disney was in production.
When I first started out as a voice actor I was super prepared. Through a decade of doing this on a professional level I’ve learned to have an overall understanding of what’s happening in the script, make some minor choices, but show up ready for anything and be malleable. I don’t have a magical vocal warmup that I practice everyday, or a specific dietary supplement or throat spray—I just try to get as much vocal rest as possible in between sessions, so I’m at my best when they hit record.
J.P.: I usually wait to ask this—but I can’t wait. You’ve had such a unique, lengthy, impressive career as a voice guy. How the hell did this happen?
R.C.S.: Ha! Man, you tell me. Not a day goes by that I don’t find myself in some weird situation in a VO booth where I wanna pinch myself. It’s truly unreal. I’ve had a number of folks ask, “How do I get your career?” I would sometimes answer with suggestions of classes, books, training, etc … Now, I usually respond with, “You won’t.” I wait to see if they bristle at that to follow it up with, “And I won’t have YOURS.” Fact is I went about this in the way that I went about it, but it wasn’t as if I had a road map leading me to voicing Batman, or Sonic, or Captain America—I simply kept trying to get another role, and then on to the next audition. When I started out down in Orange County more than 10 years ago, I went around and knocked on local post-production studio doors and offered up my crappy VO demo CD. From there, a few folks hired me. From there, I learned and got more experience. From there, I took more classes up in LA and had an agency “discover” me. From there, I landed some bigger roles and had more casting directors hear me. From there, I landed more work and eventually had Jeff Pearlman ask me to do a Quaz. I can’t tell everyone to go out and do it the way I did it, because it wouldn’t work for them. Their way of getting started wouldn’t have worked for me. I guess it’s just a matter of trying to take one step up the ladder at a time and not worry too much if ya slip here and there. If I had any idea it would/could have led to this, I’d never have believed it. I’ve worked hard and made sacrifices for it, but I still can’t believe it’s turned into the career that it is.
J.P.:You spent years as a standup comedian—which seems like pure hell. What drew you into that world? What was the love? The buzz? And—because I always ask this—what was your lowest moment on stage?
R.C.S.: When I was a kid, I loved being a ham. I loved theater and being funny. Loved making people laugh. Also enjoyed mimicry, so started doing voices and making funny sounds at a young age. Being somewhat directionless in life after high school, it was inevitable that folks suggested standup after all my theater and silliness earlier in life. Wasn’t until my mid-20s and during college that it started to be a viable creative outlet. I went to a few open mics with a buddy who was living in LA at the time to see what it was like and found myself thinking, “Hell, I can do better than that.” So, I was introduced to the wonderful world of the LA “bringer room.” Started having my friends show up to watch me perform six minutes at a time and they all had to pay up at the door and suffer the two-drink minimum. It was indeed a pure hell in many ways (mostly for my friends), but I did enjoy the challenge. I liked the ownership of comedy. If I had a great set onstage, then that was my doing. If it sucked, well I sucked and needed to evaluate and try again. The shortness of breath and butterflies before hitting the stage, then (as experience came) the calm that washed over me as I’d take the stage, the whole notion of getting to be someone who had the guts to get up and do that—it all appealed to me. Sadly, the writing on the wall of what life as a comic could be like did not. Babysitting drunk crowds on the road and seeing some of my heroes in the standup world dealing (in the wrong ways) with dark personal issues started to have me second-guessing that career path. Thankfully the voices and characters I was doing in standup opened the doors to people suggesting VO as a career.
I think my lowest moment onstage was just the need for dealing with hecklers who were drunk. Unless someone from the club steps in and removes ‘em, it doesn’t matter how bad you shame them or put them in their place—they’re just a drunk mess and tend to ruin a fun night for everyone. I was never a mean comic, so I didn’t like the idea of slamming people from the stage. So, when ya ended up having to deal with the lowest common denominator in the room it was always a bummer.
J.P.:You’ve narrated a bunch of reality shows, including “Say Yes to the Dress.” No offense whatsoever, because it has zero to do with you. But I loathe reality television. So I wonder, how do you feel about the medium? Besides it being a paycheck?
R.C.S.: How DARE you! Reality is the last bastion of all things good in our culture, dude. Now you’ve offended me and I’ll contact your sponsors to have your livelihood taken away. Dammit I’ve been BULLIED, I tells ya!
The medium is what it is, I suppose. There are some really great shows that are in the reality genre and there are some steaming piles of soulless crap, as well. I’m mostly loathsome of the fact that many of these shows have writers and producers steering the content of the show, which, in my mind, makes them anything BUT reality. I’m actually quite proud of having been a part of Say Yes to the Dress, because I feel they’ve never strayed from focusing on the brides and the stories of the “real” people. They haven’t started focusing on the folks who work at the salon and who they’re dating, who they’ve slept with or betrayed, etc … Most reality shows stray into that BS (*cough* LA Ink) and then it becomes a soap opera with bad, unprofessional actors as they try to play up drama on their REALITY show. Bugs the hell outta me. Usually ends up killing the show, too. Thankfully, SYTTD hasn’t gone away from the focus of what people wanna see on that show, which is women making the biggest dress-decision of their lives and the process involved with that. Yes, it’s a first-world-problem subject matter kinda show and the drama of crinoline vs. silk is the kind of “tough life choice” most folks on this planet would like to have, but it is what it is. Also, it’s kept me humble having voiced superheroes and zombie-killing badasses, but also being a man with knowledge of crinoline vs silk.
J.P.:I wonder how people respond when you say, “I’m a voice actor.” … especially living out here in SoCal. Is it, “That’s awesome!” It it, “Um, what?” Both, neither?
R.C.S.: Ya know, out here, most folks follow it up with, “So, like, then what’s like, your day job and stuff dude?” Being a “working actor” seems a bit of an oxymoron for most folks in LA. And here’s the truth—I’m only as legit as anything you’ve heard of. So, when folks ask me what I do, I usually ask them about how much TV or radio they may listen to. Because the older lady on the flight sitting next to me might have no clue about shows like Regular Show (it has a dang Emmy), Avengers Assemble, Clarence or Say Yes to the Dress … So I can list off some of the higher-profile projects of which I’m a part and she’ll just give me the, “Well that sounds fun, I suppose. What do you do to pay the bills?” If she’s never heard of anything for which I’ve been involved, it’s unimpressive. Also, folks in LA are so mired in the industry, it’s just like the days of dealing with LA comedy audiences (some of the worst, except for the Ice Room in Pasadena), because they all know someone who does what you do and they’re likely “better at it than you” or “more successful.” Here’s the other response from SoCal: “Yeah? Everyone tells me I should do the same thing. So, can you get me a job or an agent?”
J.P.:You’ve voiced Captain America repeatedly. So what goes into voicing a superhero? Is there an oomph one needs? A certain sound? Projection? And I don’t understand how Captain America hasn’t been shot to death about 5,000 times. I mean, he’s just a strong dude with a shield, no?
R.C.S.: Thank you for pointing out what I’ve asked for so many times—“Can we give Cap a gun every now and then?! Dude is working his tail off with nothing but a Vibranium Frisbee!” For the version of Cap that I’ve been lucky enough to do, Collette Sunderman, our voice director, worked on having his delivery be “fists on hips,” in terms of a posture when we first started collaborating. Think of the classic, comic book-esque, iconic image of a hero standing tall with his fists on his hips. That became our approach to voicing Cap early on in Avengers Assemble on Disney XD (shameless plug). It gave him more of that 1940’s “ahh shucks” delivery to contrast with the other voices on the show. I’m more barrel-chested in my delivery with him, as opposed to when I’m voicing the darker, more brooding Batman in Batman Unlimited (shameless plug coming to DVD Blu-ray later this year), nowhere near as nasally as when I’m voicing Sonic the Hedgehog in Sonic Boom on Cartoon Network and Hulu (shameless plug), and he sounds nothing at all like my voices for Mouse and Moose in Amazon’s “If You Give A Mouse A Cookie” available on Amazon Video (shameless plug). Oh, and Cap’s voice is different than Belson and Percy in Cartoon Network’s Clarence (shameless plug). Or the voices I do for Powerpuff Girls on Cartoon Network (no shame). Transformers: Robots in Disguise on Cartoon Network. Did that, too. Oh, and Ram trucks commercials might have a familiar voice in them, too (I’m disgusting).
R.C.S.: That was just a straight up, regular audition I got a call for. Showed up, a bunch of us read for the radio DJ voice, I was lucky enough to land the gig and off it went. I think horror is a genre that often comes under fire for lots of reasons—but if you’re taking THAT film seriously, then you’re getting it wrong. I think it was meant to be somewhat ridiculous. I mean, I hope it was, at least. I REALLY enjoyed getting to be a part of that. Really and truly, even when you’re a part of something that isn’t well-received, as long as you can be proud of what you delivered when you were called to do so, it’s a fun job and that’s that. Hell, I voiced a goat that had his way with Forest Whitaker’s leg in Our Family Wedding. I’ll own that! I landed a gig and at the end of the day, that’s the job.
With Jennifer’s Body, I found myself thinking, I’m a very small part of a film that 20 years from now, folks that saw this when they were young might be lampooning it the way we do all things pop culture from our youth. It’s silly, sure, but maybe I’m not the demographic for it. Also, being in a film with Megan Fox wasn’t the worst thing at that time in my life. Not that I met her or anything. I mean wait, yeah, I like totally know her. We’d hang at craft services and share a smoke during production. She’s okay, I guess. She still texts me from time to time and stuff but I’mall “babe ya gotta let this bird fly, m’kay?” Because voice actors are super glamorous and cool. Ahem.
J.P.:What’s it like to hear your voice on TV, or in a film? Is it a buzz? Boring by now? Do you remember the first time? What was that like? Where were you? Thoughts?
R.C.S.: It, to this day, does not get old. It’s a dream come true in so many ways. Sure, I don’t fully flip out when I hear a commercial or see a show I’ve voiced these days, but the magic of getting to hear something you’ve done hit the airwaves, a screen or the Internet is always pretty damn cool. It’s that aspect of voice over that does give me the same sorta buzz that standup did. Sure, VO is way more collaborative than standup, but I do get to say, “that’s MY voice—I did THAT.” I dig that part of my job. It’s very gratifying.
Can’t really remember the first time I heard my voice in a production, but I can tell you this—when the opening sequence of Planes begins, I still get goosebumps. That was such a thrill for me, being a part of a Disney feature film. And as a BAD GUY! What a rush! So, I’m glad the excitement over something coming out for the first time is still there. Once it’s gone, I think you’re doing something wrong. I hope I’m lucky enough to be in my sixties and getting excited about landing a gig in VO.
J.P.: I have a weird one here: So you’re 5-foot-5, and I’m repeatedly amazed by the relatively short stature of actors. Most of the ones I’ve met have been in that 5-4 to 5-9 range. Is this just coincidence, or is there something about performing that draws smaller guys?
R.C.S.: Ha! Seriously, I think it has to do with the fact that we gotta find a way of getting attention from the ones we wanna attract in a different way than being a tall, athletic dude. I couldn’t develop an identity as a clutch player from the 3-point line. I wasn’t very good at water polo. I’ve never known the thrill of lifting up another human male to demoralize him in front of his girlfriend the way so many tall men have done to me in my past. So, yeah, I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think short dudes are looking for a way to compete for attention/affection and being a performer, being funny, being good at something that takes guts to do—all those things don’t come with a minimum height requirement. That’s likely how a lot of us height-challenged individuals wind up here. And please use “height-challenged” going forward, Jeff. Stop bullying me with your micro aggressions and trigger words. “Smaller guys,” puhlease. I’m offended. I’ll take your livelihood now, thank you.
R.C.S.: Wow, it meant EVERYTHING to me. I kept referring to it as a Faberge egg of opportunity that I didn’t want to handle too much. I’d enter every recording session and knock on wood in the waiting room. The production folks would often give me a hard time as we got closer to the premiere about “enjoying it and celebrating” my involvement. But, I just didn’t wanna believe it was real. After the premiere I was able to relax a bit.
There are ZERO guarantees in this industry and every single day there are decisions made that can drastically affect you—and yet you have no say in those decisions. It’s just a fact you need to be okay with if you’re going to do this job. At any moment, you can be replaced. It doesn’t mean anything, it might not be personal, but it happens. So, when you grow up as big a fan of both aviation and Disney as I did—this just seems like it’s too good to be true. And I was happy to be involved in ANY aspect of that film, let alone being the lead antagonist. To go from those animatic sessions, table reads, early voice sessions and over the course of three years…it was just one of those take-a-breath-and-chill gigs where I simply wanted to do the absolute best I could do each time I went in. After they replaced me, I figured, I could at least be proud of making it hard on the celebrity that might come in to match my performance. And then the replacement I was preparing for never happened. I was beside myself. That whole year was a blur for me. I’ll ALWAYS be proud of being a small part of such a neat film. I got to be a Disney baddie, no matter the scale.
• We give Elena Della Donne a season of Division I men’s basketball. What’s her stat line?: 2,000+ pts, 1800+ rbs, 3,000+ blks, 1hb (heart broken, mine)
• Why the “Craig” in “Roger Craig Smith”?: Because “rogersmith.com” is a hotel in New York.
• Five reasons one should make Chatsworth, Cal. his/her next vacation destination?: 1. You loathe having options for things to do nearby; 2. Lots of career opportunities in what is now the former porn capitol of the world; 3. You can catch a contact high from the Porter Ranch gas leak; 4. They filmed the original Bad News Bears at Mason Park; 5. Did we mention former porn capitol and Bad New Bears? We did? Um, we’ve got a Trader Joe’s.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Wondering if I’ve lived a full-enough life.
• Absolute best animated film ever made?: Oof. Dang. Lion King.
• What’s the kindest thing someone has ever said to you?: “You sound much taller.”
• One question you would ask Samantha Fox were she here right now?: “Could you help me with my British accent?”
• Best joke you know: Knock knock. Who’s there? Interrupting cow. Interrupti MOOOOO.
• In exactly 26 words, make a case for the Love Boat: New and exciting love! A bartender and a Gopher are expecting you. Stubing’s just the captain’s name, not something you do on the Love Boat, sadly.
If you love movies, you have to love Beth Grant—because she’s pretty much been in all of them.
This is not a joke, or even an exaggeration. The native Alabaman is a Who’s Who and What’s What of modern cinema. Her credits range from “Rain Man” and “Little Miss Sunshine” to “Donnie Darko” and “No Country for Old Men”; from “Valley of the Sun” to “Crazy Heart” to “Matchstick Men” to “Rock Star.” And that’s not even the 854,322 television appearances.
Is Grant a superstar? That probably depends on your definition. But is she a brilliant, diverse actress with a long and splendid resume? Indeed.
Today, Beth speaks on the highs and lows of a career in front of the camera; of being pegged for a certain type; of portraying a wacky pageant organizer in “Little Miss Sunshine” and making her cinematic debut alongside Tom Cruise and Dustin Hoffman.
Beth Grant, who needs a star in Hollywood? You’re the 253rd Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK Beth, so I’m happy you’re doing this, because there’s a question I can ask you that I’ve always wondered about. Namely, you go to a movie and you see, let’s say, a really overweight character. Just as an example. And clearly there was a casting call for someone overweight. And I think, “Hmm, wouldn’t that be sort of insulting, to land the part of the fat guy?” You’re not overweight. But, as it says on your Wikipedia bio, you’re known for playing “conservatives, religious zealots or sticklers for the rules.” So, I guess—A. Have you figured out what about you says “conservative religious stickler”? B. Are you 100 percent comfortable and cool with that?
BETH GRANT: I’m 100 percent cool with all my characters and my career is just beyond a dream come true. But whoever put that on Wikipedia was just one person who I don’t think has seen all of my work. I’m guessing maybe it was submitted by a Donnie Darko, Kitty Farmer fan, or maybe a Little Miss Sunshine, Judge Nancy Jenkins fan—two films and two characters I love so much. My goodness, I’ve played every kind of character in the world—I do not feel pigeon holed or type cast in that description. I guess they didn’t see my Criminal Minds episode when I was a kidnapping murderer married to Bud Cort! But I have been killed a lot, so I do know that my angular face is apparently threatening enough to be killed! Ha! But I love each and every character.
I’m especially attached to Beverly on The Mindy Project … I’ve been playing her for four years! I wouldn’t say she fits that description but she does have a conservative bent and I enjoy using my face to say whatever comes to Beverly’s mind which is usually something quite outlandish and politically incorrect. There is a fun aspect to it as well, because when I get dolled up as myself and go to a premiere or whatever, people are so surprised that I am attractive. That’s a great compliment to me because it means I did my job. You can’t have light without dark. And I always like my characters. Always. I always understand why they are the way they are and I’m on their side. On The Mindy Project Beverly knows she has a rotten personality, she even said so. She took at personality test in the Village Voice, and they can’t be wrong.
J.P.:You’re a character actor—and you seem proud to be a character actor. And I wonder, did you need to accept that at some point? What I mean is, was the original goal to be a Streep or Sally Field? Or did you never think that way? And what does it mean, to you, to be a character actor?
B.G.: Oh, I wanted to be Joan Crawford or Marilyn Monroe. I was shocked to find out that I wasn’t a leading lady. I couldn’t stand it! And it thwarted my career. I would start and stop every time the reality hit. I always blamed it on my weight, so my weight was up and down and I was always struggling to work out, jogging, some new diet plan. After one makeover period, when I was maybe 28 and looking pretty good, I called a friend of mine who was producing a show about a bunch of babes, women sailors on a Navy boat and he said, “Well, we’re looking for a different kind of girl.” I told him I had lost lost weight and was looking really good ad he said, “No, you aren’t the type.” I remember being so crushed that he wouldn’t even see me. Many, many, many, many rejections like that.
But then when I was 33 I started studying with a loud, strong intimidating Greek director, Milton Katselas. After a few scenes casting myself in inappropriate roles, he said, loudly, “Why do you keep trying to be a Rolex watch when you’re the salt of the earth?” He taught me to study Colleen Dewhurst, Maureen Stapleton, Anna Magnani—wonderful character actors who became leading ladies in their own ways. Over time, I surrendered to it and I love and honor the characters I play.
J.P.:I love Little Miss Sunshine. Like, love love love. And you’re insanely good in it. So I’d love to ask—what stands out to you from the project? And did you know, while working, that it’d be a great film?
B.G.: I knew I loved it and that everyone was sharp and really, really good. But I don’t think I could have predicted its enormous success. It pleases me so much because I think it is a glorious movie and completely original. The directors, Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, are the best! They are never defensive with each other, it’s always, “Yes, and …” And they’ve worked together for years, raised three children. Amazing. And of course the cast! I saw Steve Carrell recently, who I had hoped would be nominated for The Big Short, I thought he was perfect in that film … nuanced, complex, human. They are all working together again soon and I can’t wait to see what wondrous thing they do together. Also, Abigail Breslin and Paul Dano, Toni Collette, Alan Arkin! Good grief! Heaven …
J.P.:What’s it like for you, watching yourself in a movie? Satisfying? Nightmarish? Do you always watch the stuff you’re in? Do you watch yourself critically?
B.G.: I’m usually fine with it. It’s like visiting old friends. I love my characters.
J.P.:So I know you’re from Gadsden, Alabama, know you attended East Carolina (go Pirates!). But why acting? When did the bug first bite? When did you realize, “Yup, this is it for me! This is what I want to do with my life!”?
B.G.: I was born in Gadsden, but we lived in an even smaller town, Ft. Payne. We moved when I was little so I don’t remember it. I’ve always hoped to go back there. I mostly wanted my mother’s approval, to make her smile, to hear that beautiful laugh. She had wanted to be an actress so naturally so did I from the time I can remember. She taught me a song to sing to my uncle when he came home form the Korean War. “Oh, where have you been, Billy Boy, Billy Boy? Oh where have you been charming Billy?” My uncle was as gorgeous a man as my mother was a woman. He was a football hero and in that Navy uniform … wow! When I was done he clapped and laughed and the whole family clapped an laughed and that was it! I was hooked. I’m guessing I was about 3-years old.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
B.G.: Playing Edwina Williams, Tennessee Williams’s mother, for James Franco in a movie, Tenn, about Tennessee and his family. Vincent D’Onofrio played my husband. James is such a fun and great director, he sees what you are doing and covers it!. He gives you a little nudge now and then, so gentle and encouraging but also very demanding. He expects a lot and I love working with him more than I can express. Also Edwina was very much like my own mother so I really went to town.
J.P.:Your daughter, Mary Chieffo, is also an actress (as well as 6-feet tall, which is super cool). I’m wondering how you felt/feel about this career choice. You’ve surely had your ups and downs, highs and lows—as has your husband. So when you kid says, “Mommy, I want to act …” what do you think?
B.G.: I was surprised, but then not at all. She had always loved to sing and make up plays with her friends. But she was well rounded—an athlete, a very good student, valedictorian in high school, etc. By the time she said it out loud she was already on course.
I had seen how really gifted she is, so I knew the talent was there. I had seen what a hard worker she was, how she loved to rehearse, was always prepared, so I felt great about it. The highs far exceed the lows and I figure we’ve had a pretty great life, there are worse professions. Once shed decided that Juilliard was her first choice, I was nervous. But again, she worked so hard to prepare that when she was accepted it was yet another affirmation that she is headed in the right direction. But if she ever changes her mind that’s OK, too. Acting isn’t really the goal—living life in the moment, staying awake for the journey is the point. At least for me. Acting helps us get there, that’s for sure, but it doesn’t really matter what you do for a living. You can be a channel of love, peace and truth in any job you do. That’s my goal and I hope it’s hers. But man, is she good! Wow! At age 23, she’s already done seven Shakespeare plays—lead roles, too! Plus a bit of everything else. With her height and super strong features, it will be very interesting to see the trajectory of her career. Obviously, she is everything to me. I believe in her and hope that I can always be there for her to share my experience and love.
In Little Miss Sunshine …
J.P.:I’ve covered a fair number of actors, and one thing I struggle with are those in your profession who takes themselves far too seriously. They’re not actors, they’re ac-tohrs. They need silence. And peeled grapes in their private trailer. And two assistants. I’m not asking you to name names—but I know you’ve met plenty of these folks. My question is, what about acting lends itself to the egomaniacal behavior of some? Is it the resulting fame, or the craft itself?
B.G.: I’ve never met that person! Stars have such a huge job. They carry the movie or the play or the TV show. They call them “leading actors” because they lead. Some are more personable, some are more fearful, all are human. When a star needs quiet I totally get it. I do too. I usually take a nap at lunch, it’s very important to me to keep my energy going, to re-center myself. For me, acting is more channeling another person. My instrument has to be rested. I have to eat well, take walks, meditate, treat others like I wish to be treated. I have to do my research, be thorough in my process, leave no stone unturned. It’s a lot of work before I ever say a word. So I have a great deal of patience with our leads. And of course, that gives me more patience with myself.
J.P.: You’ve been in everything. Seriously, everything. But how does it work? What I mean is, how do you decide what to do? Is it character-based? Show/movie-based? Paycheck-based? Do you turn a lot down?
B.G.: I’ve always tried to say yes a lot. I think I got that from a Liza Minelli album! The character first, the story (what the character brings to the story, how I can shine a light), the people involved, the dates, the time to prepare and hpw hard it will be to coordinate with my schedule. I’ve never taken a job solely on the paycheck—not out of virtue, money just doesn’t motivate me. Sometimes I wish it did. I’ve turned down things I felt were overly sexual or violent but I’m no prude. I’ve never had a problem doing a sex scene or nudity if it’s necessary to tell the story properly. And I’ve played wicked characters who do terrible things. Without dark there is no light. My dear friend, the director Todd Holland, once advised me on a project I was having a hard time deciding on. He said that I should ask myself what I’d be putting inro the universe. Since then that’s an important question for me.
In The Mindy Project with Zoe Jarman and Mindy Kaling.
J.P.:Your first movie appearance was in a big one—you played “mother at farm house” in Rain Man. A. How did you land the part? B. What did it mean to you? C. What memories do you have?
B.G.: My agent got me the audition. I had just been to Big Sur and I saw the cabin where the founders raised their large family. I thought about what a strong woman that mother must have been. I was determined to give them a strong “Mama Bear” pioneer woman with no make-up, in a house dress. And happily, that’s what they wanted. I found out later they had seen around 700 women all over the Midwest. What a thrill to launch my career with Dustin Hoffman, Tom Cruise, and Barry Levinson, then for it to win Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Screenplay! Wow. I still can’t believe how lucky I was.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH BETH GRANT:
• Rank in order (favorite to least): .99 Cent Store, “City Slickers II,” “Abbey Road,” Universal Studios, Marilyn Monroe, Canola Oil, Milwaukee Brewers, Honey Bunches of Oats, kettle corn, Bruce Wayne:Marilyn Monroe, Universal Studios, City Slickers II, Abbey Road, 99 Cent Store, Bruce Wayne, Canola Oil, Milwaukee Brewers, Honey Bunches of Oats and kettle corn.
• You’re offered $5 million to play Celine Dion in the upcoming film, “Celine: I Am Amazing.” However, to research the role you have to spend a full year sleeping on Celine’s kitchen floor and fighting for scraps with her dog. You in?: I’m not right for that role. Also, I don’t choose roles based on money, never have. It would be tempting to take whatever fool offered me that much money with that bizarre offer but I would pass.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall? : No. When I fly I am very surrendered, but I’ve been fortunate and never had a life-or-death situation.
• What are we supposed to do about the drought?: Conserve water! The LADWP is very helpful. We can replace leaking fixtures, rebates are often available. It’s easier than people think. We converted our grass lawn to drought resistant and native plants. It’s beautiful. Short showers. My friend Ed Begley has an underground rainwater tank for watering his plants. So much is possible and more affordable than people think. Again, the LADWP was very helpful to us.
• The world needs to know—what was it like working with Ilene Graff on Mr. Belvedere?: My first comedy! She was great, friendly and kind. I ran into her with George and Erin Pennacchio and she is still great and still kind.
• In exactly 12 words, make a case for Erik Estrada: I doubt if he needs me to make a case for him! (That was exactly 12 words.)
• Five all-time favorite movies: Godfather I, II, Five Easy Pieces, Donnie Darko, No Country For Old Men, Saturday Night Fever, All About Eve
• One question you would ask Paul Stanley were he here right now?: Do you mean Paul Stanley from KISS? I would ask him if he remembers me from the early years when I worked for Howard Marks and Bill Aucoin. I was just a lowly office worker but I remember well the day the leather arrived! The bulletins form the first tour. We all went to the first concert in New York after their tour. It was at The Beacon Theater on Broadway on the Upper West Side. They were fabulous, we threw chocolate kisses to the stage. The encore pyrotechnical display was unlike anything I’d ever seen. We knew they were going all the way.
• In 1989 you were in I Know My First Name is Steven. I was 16, and that movie shook me to the core. Was it just another appearance to you, or was there weight?: Of course there was weight. It’s horrifying to think of that happening to anyone. I had also known the parents of a boy named Adam Walsh who was kidnapped from a mall and never found. The parents became activists and we did a story on them for a show I worked on called Real People. I also did a Criminal Minds episode and played the bad guy, the kidnapper. It was directed by Matthew Gray Gubler, who suggested I think of it as a Grimm’s Fairy Tale—a cautionary tale for parents and children to stay close, particularly in crowds. I hope that it scared parents enough to watch their kids. There are so many kidnappings every year … kids need to be educated about dealing with strangers and parents need to pay attention.
So last October the wife and I took the kids to see The Lion King near our home in Southern California. We filed into the Segerstrom Center, and while waiting for the show to begin I found myself combing through the Playbill, looking up cast members.
The first name listed was Nia Holloway, who stars as Nala in the national tour. So, with nothing to do and Quazes eternally on my mind, I sent the young actress a message, via Twitter. To my delightedshock, she responded moments later from backstage. It was, easily, the quickest Quaz reply in the series history.
At age 20, Nia is both one of the youngest Quazes, as well as one of the most accomplished. Along with her lengthy Lion King run, she’s a budding pop music superstar whose work can be heard here. Nia is an active Tweeter, an active photo/video poster and, to be clear, not a real lion.
Nia Holloway, the circle of life is complete. You’ve been Quazed …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Nia, I’m gonna start with a weird one, and I hope it doesn’t offend. So earlier today I went to see The Lion King with the wife and kids—and seven hours later the music is still in my head. And it’s driving me sorta kinda insane. I mean, I like it—but not 1,000 times between my ears. You’ve been doing The Lion King since 2013. That’s more than two years of the same songs over and over and over. So, um, are you at all losing your mind? Do you love the music? Get tired of the music. And, being 100 percent serious, how do you stay up for a gig you’ve performed so often?
NIA HOLLOWAY: Well, to be honest the Lion King is filled with timeless music, so as an artist I truly truly appreciate it. And I continue to look for ways to keep myself interested by perfecting my craft every day so that performing the show doesn’t get redundant. There are tons of ways to say a line or sing a note, so you have to keep that in mind day by day. You can never stop getting better.
J.P.:So in 2013, when you were 17, your parents took you to an open call audition for The Lion King. I’m fascinated by this: A. What prompted them to do so? B. Was it just another audition for you, or bigger? C. What do you remember from the experience?
N.H.: We heard about the Lion King audition from a family friend on Facebook. I was 17 and they were calling for 18 and up so we were kind of skeptical about me actually landing the gig. It was a long-shot and we were willing to take it. So glad we did! I remember being extremely nervous, but confident at the same time. And I really did learn so much just from the audition with the casting director, Mark Brandon. It was definitely one of the most unique auditions I’ve ever done.
With Heather Headley, right, the original Nala
JP.:Tell us exactly about the moment you learned of landing the part. Where were you? Who told you? What was your reaction?
N.H.: So it was the spring break of my junior year, and I was having the most uneventful spring break. My mom woke me up at about 7 o’clock before she went to work, I’m thinking she’s about to ask me to walk the dog. However, she tapped me a couple times until I woke up and said, “Good morning, Nala.” I jumped up and looked at her and said,”No!” She screamed back, “Yes” and me and my entire family just hugged each other and cried our eyes out. We knew right then and there my life, and our lives, were about to change for the very best.
J.P.:Your grandma is Loleatta Holloway, the legendary soul/disco singer who passed in 2011. Your great-grandmother is Syllvia Shemwell, the Sweet Inspirations singer who passed in 2010, and your great aunt was Judy Clay, the gospel singer. So I’m wondering what impact your lineage has had on your career choice. In other words, when did you know you could (and wanted to) sing, and what role did those women have in this?
N.H.: All of those women had such an impact on my wanting to be an entertainer. The legacy they left behind inspires me every day. I have so many women to emulate right in my family. Specifically my grandmother, Loletta Holloway—she vocal trained me along with my father, and honestly taught me the ins and outs of staying true to yourself in this industry. She made it a point to tell me how important it was always be able to look myself in the mirror.
J.P.:What’s it like when you’re performing on stage and a cell phone rings, or you see someone texting? And how often does that happen?
N.H.: It doesn’t happen as often as you would think, but when it does you want to take a second hop off the stage and put the phone in your pocket. But in reality, you have to just ignore it and stay in character.
J.P.: In 2011 you were a cast member of Majors & Minors, the Hub Network reality TV show that took a bunch of young singers and had them mentored by stars like Brandy and Adam Lambert. What was that like? How much of the “reality” was truly reality? How much was scripted? And how did that experience change the way you now view reality television?
N.H.: Being on Majors and Minors was an amazing experience. I got to meet and work with a lot of artists who inspired me musically and I made lifelong friends with a lot of my cast mates. I definitely learned reality TV is not so much reality. The majority of what you saw on Majors and Minors were genuine moments, however, we may have had to reenact those genuine moments a couple of times. LOL.
J.P.:I just watched a clip of you singing the Star Spangled Banner before a basketball game, and I know you’ve done the anthem tons of times at local events. So what goes into doing the anthem? Is the song hard or easy? Are you 100% confident you know all the words? Is it scary, or no biggie?
N.H.: Singing the start of the Star Spangled Banner is always special to me. I definitely still get nervous, but I try not to psych myself out so I don’t run into the problem of forgetting the lyrics. Hasn’t happened yet! * knocks on wood*
J.P.: You were a small forward on the Norcross High girls basketball team that won a state title in 2013. What’s the basketball scouting report on Nia Holloway? And was it hard giving up the sport in order to focus on career?
N.H.: Nia Holloway’s scout report is not too bad! I was no star, but I was a role player and I enjoyed every minute of basketball. Although I loved it and I had so much fun with the girls I played with, when The Lion King called it was not a hard decision to chase my dreams.
J.P.:It seems like your travel schedule must be a beast. Always on the road, in hotels, strange cities. How do you handle it? Do you hang with cast-mates away from the theatre? Do you have hobbies? Do you like touring areas, or staying somewhere with a book?
N.H.: Touring can be pretty draining when it comes to missing your family and being in unfamiliar places. I keep myself occupied with activities like yoga, kickboxing and writing. I also have a career as a independent artist. My entire time on the road I’ve been working on my own music, and I just recently released a single on SoundCloud called,”Actavis” and released an EP earlier this year. So, even with touring, I manage to keep myself very busy.
J.P.:What are you thinking on stage? What I mean is, here you are, a lion, right? Do you feel like a lion? Are you deep in the character? Or are there times when you’re like, “Man, I could sure go for some ice cream” or “What’s up with the bald guy in row three?”
N.H.: Well, it’s not the easiest to be a lion especially when you are human so it’s super important to be dialed in and focused on your performance. However, I can’t lie and say I haven’t thought about some leftovers a couple times on stage.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH NIA HOLLOWAY:
• What’s your lowest moment as a performer?: My lowest moment as a performer is, even when I’m homesick and miss my family I have to still put on the best performance. It’s tough, but it comes with the territory
• Five reasons one should vacation in Gwinnett: 1. Great food; 2. 20 minutes from Atlanta; 3. Great sports; 4. Diverse population, warm people; 5. Great shopping.
• Without Googling/asking anyone, how many Hall & Oates songs can you name?: I know zero Halls and Oats songs. [Jeff’s note: This one pained me]
• Best joke you know?: Ketchup mustard
• If roses smelled like poop, and poop smelled like roses, would we like the smell of poop or roses?: I think we’d like the smell of poop, it’s all about looks these days!
• Celine Dion calls. She’ll pay you $25 million to spend all of next year starring as Celine Dion in her new Las Vegas production, “Celine Dion is Amazing, and the Rest of You Stink.” The catch: You have to live inside a cardboard box in her driveway and get a tattoo of Celine’s pet llama on your shoulder. You in?: I love llamas! I’m in!
• I just don’t love how Joe Girardi handles a pitching staff. Thoughts?: I think Joe is doing a great job.
• When Whitney Houston died, some critics wrote that she selfishly abused her gift (her voice) and never fully appreciated what she had. Is that, in your mind, a fair take?: I don’t think that’s a fair take at all. I think people should just focus on the beautiful music that Whitney Houston left behind for this world to cherish forever. She made a mark that was so unique and can never be replaced. I don’t think we should let her downfalls in life overshadow her accomplishments. We all go through things in life, Whitney Houston had to go through it in the eyes of the entire world. I actually think people should cut her some slack and celebrate the life, the love, and the music she shared with us.
Because we’re a predictable species with lame tendencies, we tend to compartmentalize things. It’s an easy method for our relatively small attention spans. Nirvana, for example, was a band with 100 influences from all over to map. But, to most of us, they were “alternative.” New York City is a metropolis featuring millions of people from millions of places. Yet, when Ted Cruz spoke of my former home, he grouped the collective value system—as if all five boroughs contain a single mind.
We do this stuff with sports, with politics, with music. And, perhaps more than anything, with actors.
Once a performer stars in something long enough, that becomes both his calling card and his identity. Christopher Reeve was Superman until the day he died. Clint Eastwood is forever Dirty Harry. Phylicia Rashad is always Clair Huxtable.
And Scott Wolf remains Bailey Salinger from “Party of Five.”
Not that Scott’s complaining. He’s not. But the man’s resume is detailed, riveting, impressive. He’s done tons of film; tons of TV; currently stars in the NBC drama, “The Night Shift.” He also loves the New York Giants, Utah, his three kids and the legend of Yinka Dare (Scott is a George Washington grad).
JEFF PEARLMAN:So I moved to L.A. and I go to Soho House. Because I wrote a book about the Lakers and someone’s interested in buying the movie rights. And I go and I feel like it’s a lot of guys my age, mid-40s, and a lot of blonde women in their mid-20s. And the guy I’m with, who I won’t name, starts showing me pictures of all the women he’s had sex with. Like, naked photos.
J.P.:Yes, naked photos. And he’s scanning through them on his phone. “I had her, her, her.” And he’s bragging. It’s a real scene, and the guy is just trying to show off. And I wonder—is that what the scene is? If you’re me, someone unaccustomed to this, there’s a “scene.” Is that it, or a total misrepresentation?
S.W.: Um … it is a good question. And it’s probably something a lot of people wonder about. Because you see these “scenes” or, like, L.A. life depicted in movies, shows. I think a lot of people wonder if what they’re seeing is accurate, or whether it’s fictionalized.
I have to preface my answer by saying it’s been a long time. I’m married with three kids, so I’m scene-lite. But I guess my answer would be that is one of several scenes in L.A. The one I was probably most immersed in was the young 20-something scene when I first got to town. Funny enough, there was like a mainstream scene back then. There was no Soho House, but there a couple of places on Sunset Blvd. that were … quintessential L.A. scene, mainstream clubs. Not you’re 21 and you just showed up from New Jersey and you wanna hang out and have a good time with a bunch of other 21-year olds from Philly and Atlanta who want to have a good time. These were, like—one was called The Roxbury, which was given its moment of fame in “Night at the Roxbury.” And then there was a place called Bar One. When I first got to L.A. that was the establishment scene. You couldn’t get in. There were some nights I’d go … I had the disadvantage of being 21 but looking 13. So there always have been these established scenes. The Soho House was kind of developed as a scene for people … not early-20-somethines, but people who were … I have tons of friends who go to Soho House, and they’re married with kids and they’re not there showing naked pictures. They’re just there socializing and having work meetings. So in a way all the people a generation ago who were on line waiting to get in at Bar One and the Roxbury and who have done pretty well for themselves have created Soho House.
It’s a cool spot. Beautiful spot. Sick 270-degree views of the city. Beautiful bar, the food’s pretty good. I’ve been there with big groups of people for fun dinners. And it is the kind of place where you’ll always see fun people you recognize and know. So that place is one of the few that has created a scene unto itself.
But what’s funny about the whole naked picture thing is—I feel like I (laughs) … I can say we, but I’ll speak for myself. It’s a different world out there. I’ve had a couple of friends who I’ve known for 20 years … came up with as actors, two of whom got divorced recently. And I worked with both of them on different projects. And the same thing happened—they whipped out their phone, and they said, “You can’t believe what’s going on out there right now.” In particular, I think, with Tinder and these type of things. Not to date myself too much, but what I was heavy in the dating scene or the club scene in L.A., if you wanted to give someone a naked picture of yourself, you basically snapped it, brought it to a little booth at the pharmacy and then brought it to the person. So obviously that process has grown so real time and easy. You can just beam this stuff around. This one particular guy was telling me about it. And I said, “Well, show me something.” And he’s like, “No, you don’t wanna.” I said, “I do! I’ve been married 11 years, I have three little kids. You don’t know how desperately I wanna see.” (Laughs). He proceeded to show me some stuff and I have to say … “Yeah, man.”
J.P.:To be 21 again …
S.W.: But that’s the thing. This guy’s 45. But single. Anyway, I digress with all capital letters. There was always a scene. I have to say, there was a fun scene I fell into when I was starting to work more. It wasn’t necessary a super-exclusive, Roxbury hard-to-get-into thing. But it was just this kind of swirl of people. There were a couple of club promoters at the time who had spots that were really fun to go to, and we would all migrate together to these places. There were musicians, bands, friends who were actors. I look back at it fondly, because it wasn’t a bullshitty check-out-what-I-can-get-into thing. Or how powerful or sexy or look who I’m banging. It was a legit socializing movement in L.A. I did have a moment toward the end of it. I had met a girl at one of these clubs, and it was toward the end of the night, and she seemed really cool, and I said, “Hey, we should get together.” And she said, “That would be great.” And lights are on and they’re shoving people out and I said, “You wanna give me your number?” And she said, “Well, I’ll see you next week. I hear you’re here every Wednesday.” And I was like, ugh. I’m one of those guys. And I literally never stepped foot in that place again. I refused to be that guy.
So it’s been so long since I’ve been a card-holding member of the social scene in L.A. But I do know your story is indicative of a couple of things. Every place, especially L.A., likes to have its spots. It’s exclusive spots the people who are in can feel some sense of pride and proprietary satisfaction of “I’m one of the people allowed in this place.” And as a rule, look it’s not unique to L.A. Our entire society is somewhat affected by how well you’re doing and what are you driving. But those questions rule the day in Los Angeles much more than other places in the country. And one of the guys I’m working with here on the show—he literally told the story of being in a club in L.A. the other night, and one of the first three questions is, “What car do you brag?”
J.P.: I drive a 2010 Prius. Can I get your number?
S.W.: I gotta go.
J.P.:So I guess it’s just L.A. is something different …
S.W.: That town is just pure aspiration. It is loaded from the bottom up with people who are aspiring to do one thing or the other. Whether it’s act, play music, stand-up comedy … something. That overwhelming aspirational energy puts a lot of people in position where they feel they can’t waste an opportunity to lurch themselves forward some way. To be honest, that’s why I left L.A. when I did. After the last year of the first series I did, “Party of Five,” I was going out into the scene. There’s where I was trying to meet a person to spend my life with. It’s not to say that none of the women I was meeting were that type of person. It’s just that that’s not where their minds were.
J.P.:Do you like fame? Is fame good or fame awful?
S.W.: Um, I think if you’re not looking for the wrong things from fame, it’s awesome. If you’re needing fame or wanting it to define who you are or give you a sense of value in the world, you’re screwed. But the way I’ve always looked at it is, my priority has always been to follow what I love. When I discovered acting I discovered that I loved it and that it felt very important to me. It’s easy to see the surface level of the acting career—a movie or TV show or being on Jimmy Kimmel. I don’t know if I’d use the words “saved me,” because I wasn’t in danger of dying. But this work plugged me in as a human being. I grew up in a very dysfunctional environment, so I was a very shut down person emotionally. Extremely so. And when I was a kid I had these watershed experiences. Literally watershed. Because most of them involved watching a performance that made me cry and feeling alive and connected to myself. And I felt like a full human being in those moments way more than I ever did in my day-to-day life.
J.P.:What would be an example?
S.W.: Well, there are very specific examples I can give you. The first one I remember—the very first show I was allowed to watch as a kid … I had an older brother who’s one of my best friends in the world now. But if I had a knife and his back was to me when we were 12 and 10, I’d be in prison right now. He was a very, let’s say, successful older brother. And so it was funny. When my bedtime came I always knew he and my mom would watch these different types of shows that were seemingly cool and I would hear him talk to her about a show he hadn’t been allowed to watch. And I was always forced to go to bed before those shows. At the time my bedtime was 10. I was 11, maybe 12, so what would wind up happening was I would take a corner seat in the couch in our family room and I would just get real still and quiet and hope that they forgot about me. And that I’d be allowed to watch the 10 o’clock show. Invariably my brother would say, “Scott’s still here!” and I’d have to go upstairs. Then it came time for me to have a later bedtime, and the biggest thing it meant to me was I’m gonna get to watch a show that starts at 10, and something about those shows is different. And the first one I watched was St. Elsewhere, this great old hospital show. To me, the epiphany of that was David Morse, who was among an incredible group of actors. I zoomed in on him. He’s still, in my opinion, one of the best actors working. But there was a particular story on St. Elsewhere, where David Morse’s wife was giving birth to their first child. She’s admitted to the hospital, they begin the process, and it’s a very exciting, happy thing. And then things start to go bad. I’ve talked about this episode for years—as I recall about it, there were complications, and they weren’t gonna be able to save both mother and child. And what I can’t remember exactly is if he was given the choice, and they told him what they needed to do. I think they told him they had a very good chance of saving the baby and a small chance of saving the wife. And his wife dies, and the baby survives. This all happens halfway through the episode, and it’s a devastating thing. And he’s obviously destroyed by this thing, but throughout the remainder of the episode … for him, this little newborn baby who he doesn’t know has basically taken his wife away from him. So he doesn’t go see the baby. He just can’t. He’s somehow managing to hold himself together. And all the while he hasn’t meant the baby, and has this anger and upset. And so the very last shot of the episode—it’s night, everyone has gone home, the camera is right behind the incubator. And the baby is in there. And he’s all alone in there in this big dark nursery. And it’s funny, I cannot talk about this scene without choking up. It’s crazy. This is the power of what this work can be. Thirty years later. You see something move in the background, and it’s him—David Morse, the baby’s father. And without a word spoken, he walks in, walks across the room, picks up the baby and holds him. And that’s the end of the episode. And I was a fucking puddle on this couch. And it was such a crazy moment, because I didn’t cry ever. Out of self defense I became a person who wasn’t vulnerable. And I wasn’t 6—I knew it was acting. But it still did this to me, and I’m more emotional that I’ve ever been. And I was human and alive and more emotional than I was supposed to feel.
Double Dragon publicity shot.
S.W.: So acting has real meaning to me. There’s the value it held in terms of the exploration of human emotional and human experience and what that can mean in terms of performing it for other people. And the second thing I felt revealed itself to me early in my studies … I was someone who could get bored easy. And this was something where I was like, “I could be doing this for the rest of my life and still be figuring it out.” And that, to me, just blew me open. I was like, “I’m in.” It felt fun, important in its own way and endless. That had me.
J.P.:I wonder if David Morse remembers that episode …
S.W.: It’s funny—I’ve never worked with him, I’ve never met him. But I was at the Erewhon Market in L.A. And in that city you see everyone everywhere. But he was the one person who stopped me in my tracks. And I was like, “Shit, do I go?” He was leaving. It wasn’t like he was looking at lima beans and I could slide up next to him. He was on his way out with all his bags. It was just a quick moment. I didn’t say anything. I figured I’d have another chance.
J.P.:Wow. You said nothing?
S.W.: I didn’t. It would have been running him down with his stuff. If the access were there more, maybe. But I feel like at some point I’ll tell him. My wife is pretty great at saying the thing you might not say to somebody. It’s easier not to say, but when you say it it can make an actual difference in a human life. It’s a remarkable thing. I’ve seen her do it and it’s amazing.
J.P.:Every now and then someone will be like, “Hey, I really liked your book.” And even though I suppose I might play it off a little, it’s thrilling. But I wonder—you’re Scott Wolf, you’re walking through Whole Foods and someone says, “I loved you on [so and so].” Do you still get a charge out of that? Or are you more like, “Um, who cares”?
S.W.: Really good question. It’s tricky. Everybody’s different. For me, I would start by saying it never sucks to hear that. It’s never a bad thing to have someone tell you they loved you. There’s still always a charge of, “That’s awesome! I don’t know that person.” I’m walking down an airport terminal, and some show or movie meant enough to that guy or that girl to say something. That’s always been really cool to me.
It’s funny, because this whole thing came full circle to me two days ago. I was thinking about work and my show now and different characters—and I realized, not that I’m not hungry for more and don’t plan on doing other things, but right out of the gates—my first major thing, “Party of Five,” really provided for a lot of people the very thing that got me into the work in the first place. You know, this thing about just touching people and giving people a genuine emotional reaction to stuff they’re watching. And at best, it’s not like you had to have lost your parents in a car accident to benefit from the emotional values of that show. You could turn around and look at your own life and, even subconsciously, be applying stuff that you’ve been put in a position to think about. Because of a show like that.
I digress. There are two facets. The psychological part that is tricky is that, for some reason, I don’t know why this is … it’s like every compliment weighs an ounce, and every insult weighs a ton. And I guess I haven’t thought enough about our psychological makeup to figure out what we do that to ourselves. But it’s like, if you read reviews of a play you did, you can read 15 that are just glowing and praise your performance, but it’s the one person who says you’re a wooden dunce—for some reason that’s the one that pings around your head all month. And it doesn’t deserve to. But for some reason it does.
It’s very easy to take the compliment and go, “Yeah, thanks” and brush it off. We don’t want to be impacted by those things. But we will make too much of a negative thing. At the end of the day I absolutely love the scope of the work that I’m lucky enough to do. I love performing characters. But if I did it in my basement, and nobody saw it, it wouldn’t be as fun. That I get to hopefully touch a bunch of different people is amazing.
S.W.: I mean … well, look, I guess the first thing I would say is it rarely gives me a negative feeling. I guess just recently, within the last year or two, there have been moments. Like I’m about to MC a gala for this really awesome local organization in Park City this weekend. And they were digging around, trying to figure out what would be a fun intro. And I said, ”I’m fine with anything.” And the first thing they said was, “Well, maybe we’ll play the ‘Party of Five’ song.” I have to say, it was one of the few moments where I was like, “Well …” My wife in particular, I told her and she was like, “No, no, no. Enough. We have to move on.” But for me, I’m very, very, very, very fortunate that the thing that has followed me around throughout my career is something I still adore and appreciate all these years later. And have no bad feelings about. I mean, I could be being followed around by “Double Dragon,” the video game movie I did. Which was snubbed at the Oscar’s.
S.W.: (Laughs) I sure did. There could be some sort of negative association with a show or role that follows me around. Which would just be hell on earth. This isn’t that. It is crazy that after all these years there is something really indelible about that show and that character that has stayed with me. Sort of like the scene I’m talking about in. St. Elsewhere. My part on “Party of Five” became that for a lot of people—which is really cool. That’s the upside. The downside is I have a desire to be a part of telling stories and playing characters that are equally indelible as I move forward. And even though I’ve been part of some really fun shows, and I’ve thankfully been able to work since then, in fairness none of the projects I’ve done have really had that level of impact on an audience. So that one still winds up jumping out front. I don’t have any bad feelings about that. I’m really proud of that show. But it makes me want to find the next one of those in my life.
J.P.:It seems like you live in a strange world. I heard an interview with Edie Falco, where she was talking about “The Sopranos” about six years after the show ended, and she said, “I literally haven’t spoken one time to the kid who played my son.” And how weird that is. I know the clichéd, “It’ll always be a family,” but isn’t it weird from 1994-2000 you work with these people nonstop, they’re known as your family members—then life moves on. Isn’t that a weird phenomenon?
S.W.: It is—extremely. Yes. It is really weird. And if you’re successful in this business you do it dozens of times throughout your life. You become fast friends/family with these people. And it’s real. That’s not to say there aren’t examples of people who are miserable with each other but say, “We’re a family” for the camera. Most of the experiences I’ve ever had—almost every one—you just go into this kind of tent together. Where you’re building this thing and there’s this common goal and, especially with “Party of Five,” and the fact we were playing young, orphan siblings. If you’re ever gonna get one where it just hurls you toward being affectionate toward each other, that’s it. And yeah, you spend an inordinate amount of time together. An hour-long TV series, especially. The half-hour sitcom thing is different, because the hours are lighter. But when you do an hour-long drama you spend more time with classmates than friends, family, anyone outside the show. Just by nature of the hours you work and the intensity and the common sense of, “We’re all better off if we’re in this thing together.” Not to compare the two, because one is life and death and the other is entertainment, but it’s a military mindset. In the sense of, “I don’t wanna be the weak link here” and we’re all pulling for each other. There becomes real bonding that I think is most of the time very special. So then when production ends, after these people have truly been your brothers and sisters, it’s like someone just yanks the tent out from over your heads. And you’re just standing there, and all of a sudden it’s revealed, “Oh, yeah, we’re not actually brothers and sisters. We were just actors doing this thing.” But you sort of buy into a mindset that is necessary to make something great. And it’s interesting how once that thing gets lifted off of you and you move forward with life—it’s remarkable how despite the intensity and genuine affection and ties you have to these people, they just don’t mean the same once you move on to the next thing. It’s a unique thing.
S.W.: Well, look, so I’ve always looked very young. The upside is I never would have been able to play Bailey on “Party of Five” if I looked my age, because I was 24 at the time I was cast. And I was 25 when they cast Jennifer Love Hewitt to play my love interest on the show. And she was legit 16. Which I didn’t think too much about. At the time I … I just looked so young, I was playing this young kid. I was in it. I was in the tent, right? I wasn’t thinking too much about the details. But then we started to have intimate scenes, where they’d be kissing. And in the beginning it occurred to me it was illegal. It never came off as creepy to me, just because, I don’t know … it never felt … I wasn’t looking at it that way. It sounds weird. But I was in the tent. I was Bailey. It wasn’t like I was dating her in my regular life. We were acting. But if you really parsed it out, I was a 25-year-old guy kissing a 16-year-old girl. Which I think in every state is illegal. Am I right?
S.W.: Oh! Right. Her mom was on set all the time. And, yeah, they signed off. But I do remember there were times where I looked around and was like, “We’re good? I’m not gonna get carted off for this scene?”
J.P.:My daughter has a friend who’s 12, and she recently left school to be home schooled to focus on acting. When you hear that sort of thing, is it “Awesome!” or “No!”
S.W.: The first thing I think is it’s a case-by-case thing. I think there are versions of that that probably work great and that the parents have a clear vision for what they want for their kids, and they’re good at home schooling. Like everything, there’s best and worst versions. The worst versions of that are scary. I mean, the odds of becoming a successful … anything is difficult. But especially in the entertainment business. It’s very tricky. When I hear of anyone that young putting all their eggs in that basket, it’s a little scary sounding. But as long as the person is … the home schooling, if that’s happening in earnest and the kid is rightly proceeding with an education … there are ways it can work. You listen to Leonardo DiCaprio—his parents took him to auditions after school. Somehow the idea of pulling a kid out of regular kid life for the microscopic chance they might be successful as an actor—I wouldn’t do it. Knowing what I know, having worked with a lot of kids … Lacey Chabert, who’s one of my favorite human beings and my little sister on “Party of Five,” she was 10 or 11 when we started, and she was a person whose career … she was on Broadway in Les Mis and was now doing a TV series—that’s a different scenario. It’s, “Are we going to shift this kid’s life to accommodate the success she already is?” That’s a different calculus. That I’m all for. If one of my kids had the opportunity to do something unique with their life, but it meant shifting schooling in some way, we’d 100 percent be game for that. But somehow the idea of saying we’re going to pull our kid out of the normal kid life just to create the opportunity for something great to happen … if you were my friend asking whether you should do that, I’d be leaning toward no. Kids only get one shot at childhood.
J.P.:What do you do if you’re in something and you know it’s not good? You know it sucks, but you have this contract where you have to promote it. So what do you do?
S.W.: Well, thankfully I’ve had very few of those experiences. It is funny because I think a lot of people, including myself working in this industry, you’ll see a movie and it will suck so badly that you’ll think, “How did they not realize they were doing something terrible?” It’s funny, this tent analogy I go back to. People go into this tent and they drink the Kool Aid. And it’s very difficult sometimes to have real objectivity whether something is good or not. That said, I’ve had a couple of experiences—one in particular on a movie and one in particular on a TV pilot, where it became evident we were not going to be reinventing the medium with what we were up to. That there were problems, creatively and otherwise.
What I have to say is, for me, my own personal experience—I’m probably in a weird way more proud of those experiences than of anything else I’ve done. What I learned about myself in those moments was I wasn’t willing to sit back and accept the problems or accept the limitations of the thing. And in any way I had access, or anything I could influence, I was fighting my ass off to try and make it better. And in one instance, with the movie, it worked. And I wound up actually being able to … it was a small enough project where I had enough influence where I felt I kind of dragged it upward. And something that could have fallen off a cliff and been embarrassing turned out to be something I’m proud of.
S.W.: It would not. (Laughs). Interestingly enough, it’s a movie … and I don’t want to disparage anything about it, but there were issues with it early on. But it’s a movie called, “Meet My Valentine,” on Netflix now. It’s a tiny independent movie that some Ion TV paid for it and aired it on their channel, but it’s actually getting looks at Netflix. That was one where it was a great script and I really loved the director and the writer and the guys I worked with it on. But it had the potential to fall backward quickly for various reasons. Some were production issues—like, there was zero money and zero time. So what can happen with that is it’s not necessarily we’re making something shitty. It’s just we’ve got some logistic and production things that are potentially slapping us backward creatively and not giving anyone a chance to be great. More than ever, I fought my ass off. I believed in it; in the story we were telling and the potential of the thing. I wasn’t willing to let this turn into an embarrassment.
J.P.:So are you proud of it?
S.W.: I am. It’s not a perfect movie, it’s not a perfect thing. But nothing is. And there’s great value and emotion in it. And I’ve gotten tons of feedback from people who watched it. It’s a sad movie; bittersweet. And it’s affecting people. Which gets back to why I jumped into this business. Day one of production was chaotic and sort of worst fears of what the thing could devolve into. I never fought harder, and with good partnership. The director and writer were great.
I also once did a TV pilot for some guys, and from the first day it was troubled. It was a comedy having a hard time being funny. As an actor, that’s the worst. A bad drama you can stay afloat in. But a bad comedy will just bury you. There’s no hiding in a bad comedy. And it was a sitcom that wasn’t having an easy time being funny and they were constantly re-writing. I wouldn’t have even known how to make it better. So we all did the best we could. They were re-writing the script daily, our characters kept on changing. It was the most chaotic experience I had as an actor.
Very early on, when I was doing “Party of Five,” I had a friend who got on the show, “Models, Inc.” Remember that show? And so he took a beating. He got it before he was ready. He wasn’t prepared to jump into episodic television. And the writing on the show was less than perfect, and on a show that got ridiculed for bad acting he was singled out as maybe the worst among them. And it wasn’t really fair, but I just remember watching that. And he would still have to go do press for it. And I remember feeling lucky I didn’t have to go out and say great things about something I’m embarrassed about. And 25 years later, I can say I’ve never had to do that, and I know how lucky I am.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH SCOTT WOLF:
• Four all-time favorite New York Giants: Lawrence Taylor, Eli Manning, Phil Simms, Joe Morris.
• When you were on “Party of Five,” my friend Adrienne—big fan of the show—walked past you on the street once and said, “Hi, Scott!” then later felt dumb because she didn’t actually know you. Should she have felt dumb?: No. It happens all the time. The clichéd one is actually the most frequent one, which is, “Did we go to school together?” My favorite is when they go, “Are you Scott Wolf?” and you go, “Yeah.” And they go, “No, you’re not.” And you go, “OK, I’m not.”
• Do people say, “Hi Bailey?”: Yes. But I think they’re goofing around.
I have a friend who was on The Real World. Your wife was on The Real World. Can you make fun of her for this?: Um, yes. Within reason. She makes fun of herself for having been on the show. So that door is open. But whenever someone says, “What does your wife do?” whenever I mention she was on The Real World, I always make clear she was on the show before it was mandatory to have sex with three people in a hot tub on the first night.
• In 2001, you played “Jennifer’s Date” in Jennifer. Three memories?: The not-so-funny answer was the movie was about a woman, Jennifer Estes, who wound up dying of ALS. The Quaz Express is supposed to be way more fun, I know. But the irony is, the least-significant character name that I’ve ever been given was in one of the more significant roles I’ve ever played. Not because of its size, but because of its meaning.
• Do you consider it realistic that Donald Trump could be the next president?: I hate to admit it … he’s like a car wreck politician. You can’t help but rubberneck. You want it to go away, but you can’t help but suck down the latest morsel. Do I think there’s a realistic chance he’s our president? Oh, God … I still have to say no. And I’m a very moderate person. I’m not way out on the left or the right. I’m a best-idea-and-best-candidate-wins person. I vote Republican, I vote Democratic. But this is terrifying, that the state of our society and culture is such that this level of fear mongering is successful at this level.
• Is it true, from your first-ever commercial, you get a lifetime supply of Yoshinoya Beef Bowls?: Hahaha. I wish. That’s awesome. Do you eat those? They used to be everywhere. It’s basically fast food udon noodles. No, but I’m gonna make the phone calls. That was my first paid job as an actor. I got $250.
• Barry Bonds, Rogers Clemens—Hall of Fame?: Yes. Here’s the great tragedy in my view, and probably a lot of views. These are two guys who would easily be in the Hall of Fame had they not been immersed in this other stuff. Let’s work from the assumption that they did use something at some point later in their careers, but they didn’t need to do it. It’s a heartbreaking thing. I look at Roger Clemens. I’ve had to good fortune of meeting him, and really liking him. I’ve been a huge fan. Here’s a guy in the conversation for greatest pitcher of all time. And probably got to a point where he was either going to start to decline or eventually retire, or saw a way to extend a career. And as a result of that decision—if in fact that did happen … to be one of the greatest, who worked harder than anybody, then to be defined by this … it’s just sad.
That doesn’t mean I don’t respect the business, or find impressiveness in those who make it far.
It’s just, well, I don’t give models much thought. They’re (generally) tall, skinny, angular and decked out in next season’s fashions. They walk runways, make sexy expressions and pose suggestively. I’ve been around my fair share of models dating back to Sports Illustrated, and well, they just sorta exist.
But not Julia Lescova.
First, Julia is smart. And insightful. She not only excels at the profession, but likes explaining it to others. She’s one of the biggies in the fashion world, but still has time to be Quazed. Which is cool.
Julia Lescova, who needs the Swimsuit cover? You’re the Quaz.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Julia, I’m thrilled to have you here, and to be able to ask you this question. My daughter is 12. She’s extremely tall for her age, blonde, with blue eyes, rosy skin, fruit punch lips, etc. I’ve had m-a-n-y people say, “Does she model?” And, to be honest, I’d rather her dig ditches filled with dog excrement. Here’s why: I hate the idea of her being judged for her looks. I hate the idea of men drooling over her half-naked pictures. I hate her feeling pressure to weigh 98 pounds at 5-foot-10. Tell me (and, I swear, I have an open mind), why am I wrong?
JULIA LESCOVA: Well, your daughter is a very lucky girl to have such a protective father. One thing about me, my mom raised me and my brother alone. My father left us when I was 2 and he died when I was 18. I never had a father and he was never around. My mom had to work out of the country when she left her teacher’s job, to survive for our family. It wasn’t easy in post-Soviet Latvia to raise two kids. I started working when I was 15-years old and traveling and making money all over the world at a young age because that was my way to survive first and then it became my career. American models have it much easier and not with as much struggle. I’m sure it would be much more fun for your daughter and you would be there to protect. But if she has a choice, I would rather recommend that she go to college and get a degree. Nothing is better/sexier than educated and beautiful women.
J.P.:In 2011 you were the face of Guess, replacing Kate Upton. Which is really cool. How did that happen? Like, for all of us who have no clue, how does a model go about landing a really sweet, huge gig?
J.L.: Yes, it’s very difficult to land a big gig like that. A lot of people have to see you and you have to have the right look. I was very fortunate to be at the right place at the right time and to have the right look. I’m of course very grateful.
J.P.: Back when I was a young up-and-comer at Sports Illustrated, one of the “perks” was getting to escort the models to the Swimsuit Issue premiere party. One thing I remember is the number of models who smoked cigarettes. I mean, tons upon tons, upon tons. Which struck me as sorta weird, because in print and video you are portrayed as the models of health. Why, Julia, do so many models smoke? And do you think it has changed at all?
J.L.: I don’t smoke. Never did. I don’t really know many models who smoke. But I think back then maybe they did. It was at a time when all models were skinny and smoking helps staying skinny, I heard. They also didn’t eat much to stay skinny. So it was coffee, no food, and constant smoking. Not any more. Before an image didn’t have to be as healthy as it has to now. Maybe you are referencing models from the 1980s and 90s. Nowadays it’s not as prevalent. It used to be cool to smoke. Now with all the new studies it’s now became not cool to smoke. Kind of unattractive.
J.P.:I remember, back when I was in elementary and junior high, the tall girls weren’t actually the ones boys were interested in. Even if they were gorgeous—I think there was probably something intimidating about dating someone taller than you, blah, blah. Anyhow, was that your experience? Were you “the tall girl”? And, since we’re back in time, you were 15 when you left Latvia for Los Angeles. That must have been terrifying, no?
J.L.: Yes, tall girls are intimidating, indeed. Many models I know were “awkward” as teenagers, as was I. Too skinny, too tall, too awkward, too long feet, too skinny toes. I was the last of all to start hanging out with boys.
I wasn’t 15 when I got to Los Angeles. I traveled all around the world before I got to Los Angeles. I’ve lived here for six years. I was 22 when I got here. By 22 I spoke five languages and lived in several different countries. I was living in Italy … Milan when I got to LA. My modeling carrier took me to living in Milan, London, Istanbul, staying in Athens, Honk Kong, Singapore, Thailand and more. I would go to different places all the time. I was very “prepared” when I got to Los Angeles. After what I’ve been through and the way I grew up, nothing could break me. I became very strong and unbreakable.
J.P.: I’m going to be really blunt, and I hope it doesn’t offend you. It seems there is a face all female models must master. For lack of better words, it’s the “Let’s have sex right now” face. Lips pursed, eyes slightly narrowed. And yet, I’m a 43-year-old man who has had his fair share of sex (hell, I have two kids as proof), and I’ve NEVER gotten that look. Like ever. So, Julia, A. What the heck is the look? B. Do guys ever get that look? C. And why do you think it’s equated with sexiness?
J.L.: Every guy deserves this look. Lol. I’m sorry if you never got one. Or maybe you never paid attention? I’m sure guys do get this look. As for the why of it—well, doesn’t it make you feel something, looking at the gorgeous girl with that look? That’s sexy, so it’s equated with sexiness.
J.P.:I was at Sports Illustrated when Tyra Banks became the first African-American woman to grace the Swimsuit Issue cover. It was talked about quite a bit at the time, in terms of breakthroughs and such. I’m wondering, do you feel there are different standards/expectations/prejudices for models of color, ethnicity? Is a model a model a model, or does race/ethnicity still come into play?
J.L.: I don’t think any longer. Before, unfortunately, for sure. It’s all changed, history changed. A hot girl is a hot girl. Always. No matter what color/ethnicity. I think. Great for Tyra Banks to have that breakthrough. I think it was some window opening of every ethnicity beauties.
J.P.:Whenever I read profiles of beautiful women, it seems they always talk about wanting “just a normal guy” who loves “the simple things” and “good conversation.” But then, upon further review, it seems the famous end up dating the famous, the beautiful end up dating the beautiful, and the world’s 300 million nice, middle-of-the-road guys go home lonely. Do the models you know only date hot guys? Or do we schlubs have a shot?
J.L.: Hahaha this is funny actually. At the end of the day, it’s all just about the chemistry. Whoever the guy is and whatever he does. Energy that pulls you two together and doesn’t let you separate from each other. I think it’s energy from God and it’s meant to be. You grow together and grow into each other. It depends where you look. You find that chemistry with someone. Sometimes it can come as an accident that you are not prepared for. And another time certain people plan it out and look for it in certain places. It depends what you “planned” for yourself. That’s how they find beautiful to beautiful, successful with successful, actor with actress, model with musician or whatever. It depends where you hang out, I guess. I don’t plan these things and I’m just prepared for the gift from God. Not searching. It will come when it’s supposed to.
J.P.: This is random, but … I grew up with a beauty mark on my face. It was one of those 3-D ones that kids make fun of, and I had it removed years ago. But as a kid it made me miserable. And I vividly recall wondering why no one in magazines like People and GQ have moles, beauty marks, scars, etc. Now, obviously, I’m aware of the myriad powers of digital editing. I wonder, Julia, do you think it goes too far? Or do you think this is all sorta fantasy, and there’s nothing wrong with trying to present visual perfection in a magazine?
J.L.: Someone’s imperfection can be someone’s trademark. Isn’t it what Cindy Crawford’s mole became? Lara Stone has huge gap between her main two teeth. Trademark. And I find it sexy. A mole can be sexy, too. It’s however you represent it. If you are shy/embarrassed of it, it will show like an imperfection. And if you love yourself the way you are and you are confident, and actually find that imperfection as different, cool—you can turn it into trademark. Like, scars on men can be extremely sexy. Story telling. It’s unique. Different. However you look at it.
As far as photoshopping I think it really depends on who’s being photoshopped, what product or publicity is being promoted and who is going to be seeing at and where they are going to be seeing it.
J.P.:What’s the best part about your job? Like, when are you at your absolute highest/happiest?
J.L.: Working with great, motivated, inspired, creative people with vision. Sometimes moving onto different projects with them and building friendship with them. Creating beautiful images that last forever, almost like creating image history. I’m the happiest when I see the final image that I’m in love with. That took effort (or no effort) to create together with a team of great people.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH JULIA LESCOVA:
• You were on the Shahs of Sunset in 2012. How did that happen?: I just passed by a friend’s house when they were filming.
• Have you ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash If so, please elaborate: No, never thought of it. My flights have been pretty smooth, thank God. I feel very protected by my angels.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Celine Dion, Don Mattingly, Ben Folds, Julio Iglesias, Kelly Clarkson, the smell of mustard, Chuck D, Back to the Future, Alf, Radio City Music Hall, Naples, Florida, The Good Wife: Can we skip this?
• Five things you always carry with you?: My phone—duh; Wallet; 32 breath crystals; Cle de Peau concealer; Aquaphor lip balm
• You walk past a construction site and someone whistles. How do you respond?: Ignore
• My therapist says I worry too much. Any advice?: The therapist should help you 🙂
• Best advice you’ve ever received?: Love yourself first.
Believe it or not, there’s generally a line one has to wait on to enter The Quaz.
It’s sorta like a hot Manhattan club, with a bouncer and a rope. You arrive, you bring a warm coat and some patience, you chill until your time comes. Or, put different, I always try and have a backlog of Q&As, so I know—weeks ahead of time—that I’ll be ready come every Tuesday morning.
Today, Zack Levine cuts the line.
He sent in his answers two days ago, and I had someone else scheduled. But the trying-to-break-through North Carolina-based standup comedian put such effort and time and oomph into his answers that, well, I had to let him past Leon, the heavily tattooed 400-pound door guardian, and into the Quaz VIP room.
To understate, Zack is a fascinating dude—a sufferer of social anxiety; an empty-wallet guy performing for the love of the laugh; a Jewish atheist who grew up in poverty; funny as hell. One can visit his website here and follow him on Twitter here.
Zack Levine, being the 232nd Quaz ain’t no joke …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Zack, you website bio starts like this: “A few years ago, after not leaving his bedroom for a week, Zack Levine asked himself what was the most extreme thing he could do to get over his social anxiety? The next Thursday, he showed up to an open mic and hasn’t looked back.” So I know of social anxiety, but I don’t know social anxiety. Can you explain, in as much detail as possible, what that feels like. I mean, you’re in your room, afraid to leave. Why? How? What’s running through your mind? And how are you nowadays?
ZACK LEVINE: The biggest issue is that I feel like I’m constantly being judged. One example—and even with therapy, this something with which I still struggle—is this: If I’m meeting a friend anywhere, be it a bar, restaurant, coffee shop, etc., I can’t go in until the other person gets there. In my mind, if I go in alone, the employees and other customers will see me coming in alone and think, “Wow, what a loser, this guy here with no friends. I bet he was supposed to meet someone here and they didn’t even show up.” It’s like they will see me and think I’ve been stood up, but not only that: they will totally understand why that person stood me up. The strange thing is, if my plan is to go into either of those places alone to have a drink or eat, to sit down and write jokes or blog posts, work on my website, etc., then I’m totally fine. In those cases, I think the employees and other customers will look at me and think, “Oh, he’s got a notebook or computer with him. He’s just here to do some work,” and forget I’m there.
Or, if I’m going on a date with a woman, I’ll try and give her an out. If I’m meeting a woman I’ve talked to online, she’s seen my pictures and read stuff, either in the profile or my website, but people can look quite a bit different in person than pictures. That last part compels me to send one last message before we meet that generally says something like this: “Here’s where I’m sitting. If you come in and see me and think like, ‘Nah … not interested in that,’ and just turn around and leave, I’ll totally understand.” I don’t have much confidence in my physical appearance, so if that’s why she wants out, then I totally understand it. But if she was fine with that and sat down and later rejected me because she thought I wasn’t intelligent or that I wasn’t funny, well, that’s fine because I’ll think, “Those two things are obviously not true.”
It also expands to general anxiety. In my full-time job (I’m a lead environmental technician for a chemical production and water treatment company), I rarely talk to my bosses about anything of significance because I think if I were to sit across from them and ask for a raise, or tell them about concerns regarding other employees or safety issues or, really, almost anything, what they’ll see across from them is a coward, someone who’s weak and afraid to talk to them. They’ll laugh off my requests or concerns and know that I won’t stand up for myself.
Even doing standup I feel anxiety. Before I go on stage I feel what people call the “right amount of nervousness”—the nerves that compel you to do well. As soon as I walk off stage, though, I look at the floor and walk to the back of the room without making eye contact with anyone, regardless of whether I did poorly or great. I can tell how well I did when I’m up there, but when I walk off stage I think maybe rather than judging me for how well I did they’re judging me for how I looked, my clothes, my hand gestures or body language, and so on.
One benefit for me is that I am very aware of this being an issue for me. If I can catch it before it takes hold then I think I’m usually able to work up the courage to walk into a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop alone or talk to my bosses.
In large crowds, for reasons unknown to me as I’ve never been a part of something like this, I get very worried that something bad is going to happen that will lead to some sort of riot or stampede. At concerts I sit in the seats and wait until everyone has left before I leave; I’m the last person to get off a plane just so no one will push me to get off any quicker.
I’m also aware that behavior like this, at least for me, feels pretty narcissistic. No one in that coffee shop is looking at me except the person taking my order, and once I get my order, they probably don’t pay attention to me at all anymore. The customers certainly aren’t looking at me. My bosses don’t see a scared little kid, they see a guy who’s 6-foot-2 and 300 pounds with a big beard staring at them with zero emotion. And the crowd in that venue sees someone they either thought was funny or wasn’t funny.
The anxiety I feel, though, is still quite real, and even if I’m able to push away the anxiety for a brief period so that I can walk into that bar or talk to my bosses or talk to a woman, as soon as that particular situation ends, it’s like a sea wall breaking and a torrent crashing into me; the anxiety seems to double or triple: if I can push it aside for 30 minutes to talk to my boss, the hour after the conversation will be me dealing with all of the anxiety that I felt before times two.
I’m also generally against taking pharmaceuticals and other things like that and my therapist, who is not an MD, hasn’t pushed me to seek that solution, so I manage it as well as I can by generally being aware of the condition and trying to immerse myself in the situations that cause the most anxiety. I’ll arrive 20 minutes early; maybe the option of waiting 20 minutes outside a restaurant will seem more stupid than going in and risking people thinking I’m a sad, lonely loser. I’ll e-mail my bosses and tell them I have something urgent to discuss with them so that they bring it up first. I’ll sit in the front of an airplane. It’s tough, and dealing with the flood of anxiety that catches up later is burdensome, but being aware of the issue makes it slightly easier to contend with.
J.P.:It seems like comedy is a profession that calls the troubled, the awkward, the frustrated, the stunted. Why do you think this is? And do you see a bond among comics, from a social standpoint?
Z.L.: I think a lot of people who grew up in rough situations, dealt with trauma, have depression or anxiety issues, were picked on in school, or don’t feel like they belong to any sort of group, find an accepting and welcoming community in comedy. Comics want to speak and be heard and we’re often able to relate to an audience by sharing details of our past and current personal lives. We learn about each other in a more intimate way than those in other professions, and if it’s just a hobby, than for those in other artistic areas.
No matter what type of joke you’re telling, other comics get that what you’re doing is trying to make what you’re saying funny and are often very willing to help punch up a joke to make it more funny.
I like doing lots of weird, abstract, sort of tangential humor, but I also try and give those thoughts context by revealing more details of my past and personal life, so I will talk about what it was like growing up poor and living in a motel, my experiences in therapy, experiences with failed relationships, and so on. Having a community that understands, if not the exact nature of the experience than at least what it is you’re trying to do on stage with that experience, lessens the burden of the experience itself; it allows me to see those events in a different light and in several ways has helped me move past them. I think it takes a fairly intelligent person to deconstruct life events and experiences and reconstruct them in a way that allows that person to experience them in a new way and from a new understanding, both personally and on stage.
As for a social bond among comics, there is definitely that. All of my friends are either comics or people I’ve met through comics I know. With respect to the social element outside of the comedy club I think it comes down to this: Most of us aren’t going to be famous but we still love doing it and we still love writing jokes, making people laugh, and being around people who are funny just feels good. I have a few very close friends from doing comedy, and when we get together to hang out, write, or meet up for breakfast, what was going to be a quick 30-minute meet up ends up being two hours of obnoxious joke telling, writing and laughter. Even if we don’t come out of it with a new couple of minutes to try out on stage, it was still two hours of laughing like hell. From a social standpoint, and others as well, working up the courage to try standup and then stick with it for going on three and a half years, has been one of the best choices I’ve ever made.
J.P.: Your website bio sorta sucks (no offense—heh heh). So … who are you? Where are you from, besides merely Greensboro, N.C.? What’s your path from womb to here? What was your first standup gig like?
Z.L.: Jeff, comics are sensitive people; the extra day it took to get this written is from all the crying. Who am I? I’m a man who cries. I cried when I watched “The Martian.” I guess that’s why I only saw that girl once.
I was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee. My dad, to whom I don’t speak anymore, is from Miami, is Jewish and his grandparents left the Ukraine to escape the pogroms and first ended up in, of all places, Nova Scotia. My mom, with whom I have a fantastic relationship, is from Tennessee. Oddly enough, they’re still married and live in the same house. I tell people I’m a Jewish atheist. That comes from, first, having a great relationship with my grandfather—he was an air traffic controller for Pan Am Airlines and traveled the world—and two, being an atheist. People ask how I can be a Jewish atheist and I always say, “I think most Jews are atheists,” but that really just comes from reading an interview with Geddy Lee, from Rush, in Heeb Magazine (when it was still in print), where he said he was a Jewish atheist.
I’m not sure where the poverty comes in or how it happened. My dad would say it’s because my mom is incredibly financially irresponsible and wasted all the money he earned as an engineer for Kimberly Clark. My mom would say it’s because my dad wasted all his money buying property, starting to build houses, and then abandoning those projects as soon as the holes for the foundation were dug. They’re probably both right.
You mentioned in another question watching one video of mine but I can’t remember which jokes I told during that set. I have talked on stage about the house I grew up in being an awful place that was ultimately condemned by the fire department and torn down. We then lived in a motel for a few months and after that in a trailer park where our neighbors across the street were arrested for possession of Methamphetamines and the neighbors down the street arrested for dog fighting.
In seventh grade my grandfather, mentioned above, died. He’d had heart surgery and the doctors recommended my grandmother, who had Parkinson’s Disease, go to assisted living while he recovered. She refused. A woman of privilege, she saw something like that as being beneath her. One day, not too long after his surgery, she fell and he went to pick her up. The area on his leg from where the veins for his heart were removed hemorrhaged and his blood stopped clotting. My dad’s sister came to the hospital and before my grandfather died took his credit cards and spent over $30,000. On Thanksgiving my grandfather died. My dad never spoke to his mom or his sister again.
In eighth grade my best friend for many years died after a football game from a brain aneurysm. I’d moved to a different middle school and it was my new team, North Rowan Middle School in Spencer, N.C., versus my old team, Knox Middle School in Salisbury, N.C. I was on defense and he was on offense. We saw each other, greeted one another, the ball was snapped and run, the play was dead. My friend jogged to his sideline, collapsed, went to the hospital, and died the next day. I blamed myself for years for his death. It’s only been this year, after going to therapy and trying a few different techniques, that EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) helped me with the burden of having carried that guilt and self-blame for so many years. There are many reasons I’m ethically (and hypocritically, since I still watch it three or four days per week) opposed to football, one of which is the reason you and I came into contact in the first place – domestic violence by players and inaction on the part of teams, owners and the NFL itself. This event, concussions and CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) and the growing number of youth football players that die every year now—nine reported so far this year—are also reasons I’m opposed.
In response to this my parents moved us again, this time to a new high school. One significant thing is that every neighborhood I’d lived in and every school I’d been to was greater than 50 percent black. This new high school, out of nearly 1,800 students, probably had 100 black students. I’m a Jewish atheist white kid, but it was a massive shock. I was the first kid in my middle school with Tupac’s “All Eyez On Me,” I watched “Martin,” and now I was in a school where kids listened to country music and watched “Andy Griffith.” I’ve never once uttered the n-word in my life, but it wasn’t until I moved to this high school that I really knew the word was a racial slur.
Cut to college. I worked two years out of high school before going to college. I went to Winston-Salem State University, an HBCU (Historically Black College/University) in Winston-Salem, N.C. (also the alma mater of ESPN’s human shit spewing megaphone Stephen A. Smith). Within the first week of freshman seminar, they mentioned the chance to study abroad through the Office of International Programs. The next day I went and said, “Send me somewhere.” They said there was a new program called FIPSE-CAPES, an agreement between the federal governments of the USA and Brazil. I got a grant and a few credit cards and went for seven months. I returned to the United States after I graduated with a BA in Political Science and a minor in Brazilian Studies, I went to Israel with Taglit-Birthright. I extended my 10-day stay to six weeks and also went to Palestine, Jordan and Egypt.
When I got back, rather than going to law school, I moved to Washington, DC, where I struggled to find jobs for several years. I mostly worked in outdoor environmental education, teaching young students aboard a boat for Living Classrooms Foundation all about the biology and ecology of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, pollution, weather and climate, and more.
I moved back to North Carolina for graduate school, working at first on an MA in recreation management before moving to an MA in applied geography. If anyone that reads this wants to give me a job in stream restoration, watershed management, GIS (geographic information sciences), soil science, forestry, urban ecology, watershed ecology, or biogeography, please get in touch.
I actually started doing standup when I moved back to North Carolina. May 10, 2012 was the first time I stepped on stage at the Comedy Zone Greensboro. The last time I went on stage was yesterday. The Triad (Winston-Salem, Greensboro, and High Point) and the Triangle (Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill) and Charlotte are the places I regularly perform, but these three regions of North Carolina don’t add up to Atlanta, New York City, Los Angeles, or any big comedy city, but I still perform, whether at a show or an open mic, at least four times per week. I try and make every one of those minutes on stage count.
When I’m not at work or doing comedy, I’m usually trying to find places to go hiking and camping. My most recent camping experience was in Grayson Highlands, VA, where a friend and I camped for two nights and spent three days hiking to and from the summit of Mt. Rodgers. I love traveling and language, also. I’ve been to 36 states, nine countries (I’m counting Palestine, sorry Bibi!) on four continents. I speak Brazilian Portuguese and am trying to regain my fluency in Spanish, although keeping fluency in both, for me, has not been easy. It’s one or the other or a strange mix of the two.
I also love cooking any and all types of food from any and all regions and countries. My mom didn’t work from the time I was in kindergarten to ninth grade, so I often tell people she taught me how to cook, sew, make quilts, and treat women with respect.
J.P.:I’m gonna call you a struggling standup, because it seems like all non-Seinfeld, Rock, Leno, Schumer standups are struggling. So what’s the grind? Like, how do you land gigs? How do you travel? How much does it pay? How hard is it?
Z.L.: The grind can be tough. I also work a full-time job. There aren’t too many stage opportunities in the Triad, so I’ll frequently go to the Triangle, Charlotte, and less often to Wilmington and Asheville. I have also traveled and performed in Athens and Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Whenever I travel for vacation I try and find open mic or show opportunities. I love performing in new cities and for new crowds for several reasons. The biggest reason is that those people have no reason to laugh unless they think I’m funny. At home or in cities I frequent, comics I know might be in the crowd and they can certainly influence a crowd with their laughter. It’s like people think, “Oh, all those guys are laughing? There must be something I’m not getting but I’d still better laugh.” Another reason is that I can dig into the well of material I have and do older material, material I love but don’t do as often, that particular crowd has never heard. I performed in St. Augustine, Florida recently and did several older favorites of mine, one of which I’d not done in over two years. My biggest worry is that I’d forget an important piece, but I was in the moment, the crowd was loving everything, and it worked.
To land gigs I really just have to e-mail everyone I can think of. I’ve traveled enough and try to network as well as I can, so I have a good-sized network to draw from. I’ll send out e-mails with headshots, my bio and links to one or two of my best videos. A lot of it, generally, is just being a funny person who is easy to work with. There are plenty of funny assholes out there who no one wants to work with. If you go somewhere and do great with your best five minutes people will remember you. From there your opportunities gradually grow.
You also might want to try and expand your presence outside of just doing standup. Lots of comics have podcasts that are focused on comedy and comedians. Some write and film sketches. I do both of these things, although I’m just getting to the point of actually putting the content out.
The biggest grind, I think, is just building an amount of material that works. Writing a joke is an involved process, beginning with cultivating an idea, then working it out on stage over the course of several weeks, trying to make it as funny as possible, then trying some more. Sometimes those jokes don’t and won’t work. Comics will tell you that a joke is never finished, and it’s true. I’ll come back to old jokes that were one isolated minute or so of stage time and realize I missed so many opportunities for tags and punchlines. Once you have five minutes, you work on building another five.
One thing that’s interesting is, two five-minute sets does not equal one 10-minute set. A 10-minute set involves, first, the stamina of just being able to tell jokes on stage for that long. You have to ride this wave of premise to punchline from joke to joke that, from a performance perspective, can be exhausting. I am at the point where I can comfortably do a 30-minute feature set. I write relentlessly and work on jokes as often as I can, whether it’s eating breakfast with comic friends or driving two hours to do five minutes at an open mic.
A lot of people would say there’s no way that’s worth the time, gas money, and so on, to not even get paid, but I’ve not felt many things greater than making an entire crowd of people laugh at an original joke you devised from premise to punch.
With traveling, generally I will try and arrange shows so I can go with at least one friend. We’ll both get time, have the ride there to talk about jokes, comedy in general, sports, movies and television, then have the ride back where we can commiserate over how poorly we both did.
LOL at the “How much does comedy pay?” question. It pays nothing. I might get gas money, free food and drinks, or the occasional $20. In the 3 ½ years I’ve spent doing standup, I’ve probably made a total of $500.
That part of it is certainly hard. It can come down to not doing a show because, even though they’re giving you gas money, you don’t have the gas to get there because you’ve got to go to work. Sometimes I’ll go do the show and rather than going home to sleep, I’ll drive back to work and sleep in my office just to cut out using a few gallons of gas. Doing poorly on stage is hard, for sure, but I’m to the point now where I can learn lessons from every show or open mic I do, even if I did well. I record all of my sets and go back and listen to find places where I slipped up, or where I could have put in a new tag I thought up on the drive back. But really—and this might sound corny—the positives of doing standup, for me, far outweigh the monetary costs of doing standup. I’ve made a great deal of friends, have laughed more in the past 40 months of my life than the 28 years prior to that, and I’ve truly been able to work through a few personal issues by going on stage and talking them out and trying to find the humor in them. Sort of like Jews did when faced with the Holocaust, only my problem is not being able to go into a coffee shop alone.
Z.L.: I don’t think I’ve used that line or even that entire first joke since. Usually the first line or little joke I’ll tell is just a throwaway thing that either has to do with something I’ve observed with that particular crowd, a particular way I’m feeling, or something that may have happened on stage before I went up.
The first minute of a set can truly determine how the rest of it goes no matter how much time you’re doing. I think in the first minute I try and accomplish two things: make the whole crowd laugh at least twice; and get them interested in what it is I’m talking about. A lot is made of the whole LPM metric (laughs per minute), where ideally you want minimum four LPMs, but less is made, at least for younger comics, of the importance of having a crowd actually be interested in what you’re saying. Sometimes this actually involves them not laughing and instead intently listening. Of course, you want them to laugh, and they’re there to watch comedy, so you want to make them laugh pretty much right away.
The first little bit of a set can kind of set the tone for how you might proceed. If I start off with, “I had an emergency session with my therapist today,” then you can see how that might send the set on one track. If I start with (as I do in a set I did at Foundry Ballroom in Athens) a joke about wearing a squirrel costume made of squirrel pelts, then you can see how that might go an entirely different track. Of course, with my particular style, I like to be abstract and go in weird directions. As I think it says on my bio on my website, I don’t really like to do a standard setup, tag, punch, A to B to C joke. My sequence might go: emergency meeting with therapist, the benefits to an adult for psychologically abusing children rather than physically abusing them, to why I wish I was a taco, to living in a motel.
The “wish I was a taco” joke was something I originally might have thought would be a throwaway. I was doing a show for a birthday party and had no idea all these people in their mid-30s would bring their small children. So I tried to think what little kids might find funny. I came up with why I wish I were a taco. Now I use it far more frequently than I ever thought I would. Sometimes it comes out when I’m trying to express frustration with therapy. For example, “How did that make you feel?” being asked of me several times over, until finally, frustrated that I can’t eloquently express my feelings, I blurt out, “I don’t know. Fuck, what do you want from me? I mean, seriously … sometimes, I don’t know … I wish I was a taco.” Someone angrily expressing that their true feeling is wishing they were a taco, at least to me, is very funny.
J.P.: How do you come up with material? Can you give an example of the development of a joke?
Z.L.: Here’s quick example of the development of a joke based on real life. I’m just going to type up the text of the joke as I imagine I’d tell it on stage …
I took a shower today. Anyone else in here like to shower at all, ever? I came out of the bathroom and my girlfriend noticed I was fully dressed. She asked, me, “Um, wait a second. Zack: Did you just get dressed … in the bathroom?” And I’m like, uh, yes, I did. Is there something wrong with that? And she yelled at me, “Yeah, Zack, you don’t get dressed IN the bathroom!” “Why not?” “Because, Zack, it’s hot and wet and humid in the bathroom. If you get dressed in the bathroom, you’re never going to get dry … because of all your crevices!” And I was like, “My crevices?” Do you know how much it hurts to have someone you love reference ALL of your crevices? I thought at most like, maybe I had two or three crevices. I said, “Well what am I supposed to do then?” And she said, “You go into the bathroom. You shower. You come out of the bathroom naked.” And I stopped her that because that is NOT happening. I do not like to be seen naked. I will come out of the bathroom naked if the power is out, at 2 am, and it’s a new moon. I seriously cannot risk being seen naked. She stops me as if I didn’t just reveal something deep about myself as a man. “Then you blow dry your entire body, otherwise, you’re never … going … to … get … dry.” And I looked at her and said, “Well shit, in that case, I have ALWAYS been wet. I’m like a clam, my junk is just always submerged under some small amount of water.” I was like, “Can I use your blow-dryer” and she goes, “Ugh. No!” And I’m like, “What the hell? It’s not like the blow-dryer sucks the moisture off of my body and into the dryer. It’s not gonna make your blow dryer dirty. Plus even if it did, I just took a shower! I’m clean!” And she goes, “You can buy your own blow dryer. Just make sure to get one with the snowflake setting.” I’m like, “The snowflake setting? What is that?” And she says, “It’s just a button with a snowflake on it. It blows cold air. But I guess I should know I’d have to explain that to you, since you didn’t even know you don’t get dressed in the bathroom.” I was like, “How much does a snowflake setting blow dryer cost?” She rolled her eyes at me and walked out of the room. I guess asking how much a snowflake setting blow dryer costs is like asking how much a Ferrari costs: if you have to ask, you can’t afford one. Also, I looked, they’re like $15. So yeah, I couldn’t afford one. We’ve since broken up. Because I can’t afford a $15 blow dryer. And also because I’m still kind of wet.
OK, so that joke comes from my ex-girlfriend basically explaining to me that I shouldn’t get dressed in the bathroom right after taking a shower, and that if I can’t get myself fully dry with a towel I should use her blow-dryer. I mean, it makes a lot of sense, really, but it never crossed my mind. I’m not one to do much of anything naked unless it is absolutely required that I be naked. Anyway, you can see how from me showering and her saying not to get dressed in the bathroom and to use her blow-dryer, from a comedy perspective, there’s a lot of potential routes to go with that. The trick (or whatever you want to call it) isn’t to find what’s funny about that interaction, because it’s likely that nothing is funny about it; it’s to find what’s funny around that situation: her telling me all that; what if she had said I can’t use her blow-dryer; what if she’d said all that about never getting dry; how would I respond to that; what might be funny about a blow-dryer to a guy who’s pretty much never used a blow-dryer and knows nothing about them except they blow hot air; and so on.
Then you take that premise on stage and you just work it out. A lot of times, when a crowd responds at one particular place, you can improvise a line to build on what they found funny to make it even funnier. This happened when I said, “In that case, I have ALWAYS been wet.” They laughed really hard and in the course of one second I thought, “What’s something that’s always wet? A clam! My junk is like a clam! Always wet!” Over time you continue building small pieces to it, even once you feel it’s perfect. To be quite honest, because her and I did break up, I just now came up with those last three sentences.
J.P.:What does it feel like to absolutely bomb? How long does it take to know it’s not working? And how hard is it to re-take an audience after you’ve lost it?
Z.L.: I think there are two categories of absolute bombing, both of which have happened to me.
One is when the crowd just sits there silent and gives you no response. Standup is designed, I think, to elicit a response, preferably laughter. But to get no response at all is very confusing.
The second is when a crowd just hates you and boos because they like you so little/dislike you so much they’re compelled to let you know not with silence, which is pretty passive, but with their voices, which takes energy. They have to really feel the hatred to boo.
Now I think I’ve been doing standup enough to get a somewhat decent read on the crowd and what they might enjoy, especially if I don’t have to open a show, but even then you can sometimes tell just based on the demographics of your audience. You can usually tell pretty quickly that it’s not working, and this goes into why I was saying earlier that one of the hard parts is amassing a wealth of material. If it’s not going well, you need to know when to pull the cord and move on to something else. Sometimes it’s not even that they wouldn’t find the joke funny, it’s that as a comic I’m not selling it hard enough. I flubbed one line that was crucial to the joke making sense, or not opening the joke with enough confidence. You, as the comic, have to know what you’re about to say is funny and that it will work. The crowd, I believe, can see any doubt or fear you as a performer may have. Once they see that, and if you believe that they’ve given up on you, then it’s probably going to be a difficult road ahead for the rest of that set.
One positive, however, about all crowds at a comedy show: They are there and they paid to be there to watch comedy. They want to laugh! They probably want to laugh more than you want them to laugh. They’ve already invested time and money into the experience of being at a comedy show. Once you realize the crowd is, almost by default, on your side, it’s hard to really, completely, absolutely screw up and bomb.
If you’ve completely lost a crowd I’m going to say, coming from someone who’s only been doing this for a few years, it’s not possible to get them back. You might have a joke they enjoy that they will laugh at, but getting them back full force where they’re behind you 100 percent isn’t going to happen. You’ve already put doubts into their minds, and likely your own mind, and it’s hard to fully erase that.
Even professional comedians—I’m thinking Jerry Seinfeld in “Comedian”—have to try out new material and it’s not always going to work. Perhaps on name recognition they’ll do well regardless because a crowd is there, most likely, to specifically see them. Whether or not they absolutely bomb or completely lose a crowd, I don’t know. But I’ve seen them struggle live just as much as less experienced comedians, which in a way is refreshing to know that never changes.
If you want to know what I was doing when I got booed, here’s that joke:
I had this idea about how global warming had finally started to affect the KKK. They’re sweating their asses off in some awful place with no air conditioning. And they call up Al Gore because he’s white, and they’re like, “Look man, it’s hot. We need some help. We’re willing to join your side in the fight against global warming. Can you talk to Barack Obama for us, because you know, it wouldn’t look good for us to talk to him?” Al Gore is like, “Yeah, for sure.” So Obama gives the KKK a call and they’re like, “OK, we’ll throw all the weight of racists everywhere to helping end global warming.” Obama is like, “Oh man, absolutely, that’d be great.” And the KKK is like, “One condition. You have to let us blame black people for it or it’ll never work.” Obama thinks it over and is like, “OK, that’s fine, but I have conditions of my own.” And they’re like, “OK?” And he says, “You can blame us for global warming, but everything else you blame us for? That’s gotta end.” The KKK is like, “OK, cool.” Then I talk about how it must feel for that one really old racist dude; he goes out to his garage and pulls a tarp off a big pile of junk, his wife comes in because he’s hammering inside the house and she’s like, “What are you doing?” And he moves, big grin on his face, and he’s hung his old “White’s Only” sign beside their air conditioner.
OK, that is probably just not a good joke, but I was a few months in and I thought the concept was funny. Maybe it’d be better as a filmed sketch, who knows? But I did that joke twice. The first time it was OK. The second time, I think the crowd heard me say, “blame black people,” and it was over for me right there. I still finished the joke, though, and I recorded it as well. I went back to listen to really see where I went wrong and really, just thinking the joke would work at all was probably where I went wrong.
J.P.: How does appearance play into a comic’s success? Like, could you wear a suit and tie and be the same guy? A Yankees jersey? Does the beard, the clothing do something?
Z.L.: A lot of comedians have their “uniform.” For many it’s just a black T-shirt and jeans. For me, it’s jeans and a hoodie. Others I’ve seen wear un-tucked button down shirts with jeans. There’s one comic I know who always wears a suit.
I’m honestly not entirely sure of the psychology behind it, but for me, wearing jeans and a hoodie, that’s basically how I dress all the time; like a 14-year-old child. I’m typing this in my office right now, at my job that pays me money so I can pay rent and eat food, wearing jeans, an oversized red long-sleeved shirt, a gray hoodie and boots. If they told me to shave or start dressing like a professional, I may just walk out. (To anyone who read my job solicitation above: I’ll totally shave and dress like a professional for you!)
When you’re on stage you’re, for lack of a better term, exposing yourself to the public: your thoughts, emotions, feelings, ideas, and so on. I feel like you want to give them your genuine self. If I wore a suit on stage it wouldn’t feel authentic. I don’t know if I could present a lot of my material, about growing up very poor and seeing a therapist and struggling with self-confidence issues and relationship issues, if I were clean-shaven wearing a suit on stage. All of that stuff is true, but I doubt it’d feel true if my outward appearance said something else.
It’s one of the reasons why people say very handsome and in-shape people can’t be standup comedians: If you’re super attractive no one is going to believe you’ve got some problem you just gotta talk about on stage.
What I wear on stage and my beard and glasses and general appearance—that’s genuinely who I am. I think my comedy expresses who I genuinely am, whether it’s some insane interaction I had with a guy carrying a dead horse around in the back of his old pickup truck or me talking about why black beans are the reason I don’t believe in God. I need to genuinely be myself on stage both inward and outward. It’s more believable for me and I think for the crowd.
J.P.:Hecklers—how do you handle them?
Z.L.: I am not good at dealing with hecklers. I wish I were better at it and maybe over time I will get there. My instinct to hecklers is usually to just threaten them with their lives. It’s not that I have a problem coming up with some witty rejoinder to their clever input; I just take what I’m doing up there seriously and I’m in a flow that I don’t like being interrupted.
Having said that, some people view anyone who talks at all during your set as a heckler, which I understand. For me, though, occasionally someone really loves what you’re doing and will throw out a comment that you can truly use to build on, whether it’s building that joke or a further and greater rapport with the crowd.
I have a joke about discussing suicide with my therapist (I’m not and have never been suicidal, by the way.) I go on to tell her the first time I thought of suicide was when I was in elementary school. She asked how I planned on doing that in middle school. I go on to tell her how and I get to the end of how I was, hypothetically, as an 8-year old going to commit suicide. This woman in the front is laughing really hard and goes, “It’s like mouse trap!”
I certainly did not view that as a heckle. Instead, what I said was, “Shit, you’re absolutely right! That suicide was like a Rube Goldberg machine. Too complex to ever really work. The people investigating would be way too focused on how I killed myself and completely forget about my body. Instead they’re like, ‘Hmm, how did he get this to work this way and this to react in a way that wouldn’t set off this other reaction, thereby ruining the whole process.’” To me, that made that woman feel like she was a part of the show and it made the entire crowd feel like, “This guy is on his toes. He’s really in the moment with us as a crowd.” I think a crowd loves that.
Threatening to kill a guy doesn’t always, although sometimes maybe it does, do that.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
Z.L.: Ah, the greatest moment now is you thinking I have a career as a standup comedian!
First, I’ll start with the lowest. I did a show opening for a pretty big-named national touring comedian It was very close to Christmas and there were lots of large corporate groups there. Everyone was completely drunk. I went up to do my set and it didn’t go well at all. There were lots of interruptions, people talking, and just generally lots of noise and chaos. Most of the people were there to get drunk and eat on the company’s dime, not really to watch comedy. That wasn’t really the issue. The issue was at the end of the show, I was waiting around with the other comics, shaking hands and talking to people in the crowd. A woman came up to me and shook my hand and said, “So, how long have you been doing comedy?” That doesn’t really express the way she said it; it was like she was talking to a child. I said, “Right at 2 1/2 years.” She makes this sad look on her face, like she’s trying to express empathy but it’s more like pity, and goes, “Yeah … it’s tough.” I don’t know why but that crushed me for probably two weeks. I guess it’s good she was honest, but I thought she could’ve just said, “Well that was good, then! Keep at it!”
I’ve had several best moments, but this one might take the cake. I did a show at Motorco Music Hall opening for two of my favorite people in the world—Johnny Pemberton, who was featuring, and Duncan Trussell, the headliner. I’d worked very hard to help the promoter sell out the show and we had a crowd of 300 people. I hosted the show, opened with 10 minutes, and it was so much fun and such an absolute blast that I totally forgot to say my own name. I was able to throw my name out there at the end, and it really helped me out; quite a few people from that night, even over a year later, come watch me perform at different areas around the state. Duncan gave me a huge hug after my set, told the promoter that I “was amazing” (his words; I have proof!) and told me the next time he comes through the area he wants me to do that again.
• One question you would ask Steve Jobs were he here right now?: Who supplied you with mushrooms, how much were they and can I borrow the money to buy some for myself?
• In exactly 17 words, make a case for yogurt: Yogurt is full of protein, calcium, and live cultures, promoting muscle growth, bone density, and healthy digestion.
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? If so, what do you recall?: Several times. I usually smile at the people panicking, know I can do nothing about it, and just close my eyes.
• Five reasons one should make Greensboro, N.C. his/her next vacation destination: Greensboro has America’s highest ethnic Montagnard population outside of Vietnam. They brought a lot of their culture with them, including their food, which is amazing and is well-represented across several restaurants in the city.
The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is located in downtown Greensboro. The Museum is located at the old Woolworth’s Building, where students from NC A&T State University began the sit-ins at the white’s only lunch counter. It opened in 2010, fifty years after the sit-ins sparked similar actions across the country.
The Greensboro Coliseum has the ACC Hall of Champions. The museum has numerous exhibits on the history of ACC basketball and ACC tournaments.
The Idiot Box, located in downtown Greensboro, is a local, independently-owned comedy club with a husband and wife team of owners that have spent tons of their time and money into ensuring Greensboro has a place for standup comedy to grow and thrive. You can even catch me there, along with plenty of other funny people, on Thursdays for open mic night and two shows each on Friday and Saturday.
There is a great theater scene in Greensboro, with Triad Stage and the Carolina Theatre having a full slate of plays, opera, dance, and more. Cone Denim Entertainment Center also hosts concerts, comedy, plays, and more. All three venues are within five minutes walking of each other, in downtown Greensboro.
You can come to Greensboro to eat great food, take in a bunch of civil rights and basketball history, then catch some live standup one night and a play the next.
• What are two interesting things you can tell us about your aunt?: She’s been teaching special education in Tennessee and Georgia for over 30 years. She’s lived in the same city, within 10 miles of where she was born, her entire life.
• In a Tweet you once wrote, “Holy nutsacks!” What are your other go-to Twitter expressions?: Haha, I only recently started using Twitter with any regularity. After my ex-girlfriend and I broke up, I all but stopped using Facebook. I still need a way to promote my comedy and website and other stuff, so Twitter was that avenue.
• From a comedy standpoint, who’d be the person you’d want to become the next president?: I’m not sure if I’d have anything original to say about Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, so I’m going to go with Bernie Sanders. He’s new to the national scene, he’s an old, cantankerous Jew and I feel like he’d give comedians a lot of places to go with his behavior, speeches, miscues and policies. It helps that it overlaps with my general choice.
• Sometimes I pick my nose and wipe it beneath the rental car seat. Thoughts?: Sometimes I find old raisins underneath the seats in rental cars and eat them.
Blind Melon should have gone down as one of the greatest rock bands of all time.
I know. Blind Melon? The Bee girl? No Rain—the song people either seem to love or hate? Well, yeah. Blind Melon. The Bee girl. No Rain—the song I love, even though I’ve heard it 8,000 times. This is one of those things you’ll either have to trust me on, or simply learn for yourself by pulling out one of the group’s three albums. Because back in the early-to-mid 1990s, before singer Shannon Hoon’s death of a cocaine overdose, Blind Melon was putting out some of the most inventive, unconventional stuff in existence. People try to categorize the group as hippie rock, or alternative rock, or jam band, but none really sticks. They’re funky, cool rock—with a distinctive sound and vibe.
Anyhow, I’m babbling, because I friggin’ love Blind Melon. With Hoon’s 1995 passing, Blind Melon as we knew it passed, too. I mean, the band came back strong a decade ago with a new lead singer (Travis Warren—Quaz alum) and a solid CD (For My Friends), but Hoon’s absence changed everything. It just did.
Rogers Stevens, dreams come true. You are this week’s Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:Rogers, I’m gonna start with a weird question, and I hope it doesn’t sound inane. So, I think it’s cool that you went back to college, then law school, then got a job with a firm. I really do. But there’s also a small part of me that finds it, oddly, dispiriting. Like, to me you’re the Blind Melon Guitarist. You’re a tour bus to Oakland; you’re riffs between Shannon Hoon vocals; you’re Woodstock ’94 and SNL and all that stuff. Really, it feels a little like Peter Pan growing up, or Christopher Robin no longer believing in Pooh. Um … do you feel this way at all? Like, was there any conflict going from a life of music to a life of law? And does my question even make sense?
ROGERS STEVENS: Your question makes sense in a rambling sort of way. I think you could’ve focused it a bit more, maybe pared down the premises a bit. The question comes off like you were still working it out in your head while you were asking it. But I won’t hold any of that against you, and I find it encouraging that your brain is actually working for this interview, despite my low-wattage, faux-celebrity standing. Ultimately, I appreciate that you care—or that you do a fine job pretending that you care. Anyway, yes … I do understand what you mean. But I never saw it like that. I always make an effort to follow my instincts and interests. I have a fetish for challenging myself. I crave new experiences, and I’m not comfortable when I’m comfortable. Does that make any sense?
J.P.:I’m sure, in the 20 years since he died, you’ve tired of Shannon Hoon questions. But here’s a Shannon Hoon question: Who was he? What I mean is, I know he sang, I know he had drug problems, I know he died young. But … what was he like? Was he happy? Brooding? Friendly? Standoffish? Was he great, in the way some people have greatness about them? Or just a guy? And how often does he enter your mind at this point of your life, if ever?
R.S.: I’ll say this—he was all of “happy, brooding, friendly, standoffish” and much more. I’ve met a lot of people along the way, and he was clearly one of the most interesting and conflicted people I’ve ever met. First impression for most people was “star.” He was incredibly gregarious when he wanted to be. He pretty much talked all the time unless he was pissed about something. He had absolutely no capability of editing the content of what poured out of his mouth. The trick to Shannon’s brilliance was that he said everything, and about 5-to-10 percent of it was really cool. Of the remainder, a good portion of it was nonsensical stoner logic, which also had its moments. You would find yourself saying, “Yeah … that makes sense in an alternate universe.”
And that temper … wow. He was prone to volcanic rages that came out of nowhere if he perceived a slight, either to himself or those close to him. When he opened that door, you could see a very, very deep level of anger in him that was truly frightening unless you were used to it—I got used to it right away. I saw him fight too many times to count, and I never saw him lose. He actually loved it, or at least had no fear of it. He was not a big guy, but he was agile and strong, and like many good street fighters he had heavy hands. To clarify, though, he was not a bully, and he generally fought people who were bigger than him for some reason … I can think of several instances with police. He just did not like authority.
He did not trust journalists, although he befriended many of them. Had you asked him a question that gave him the impression that you were fucking with him, he would’ve had it out with you.
J.P.: On your Wikipedia page—and in your bio—there’s a sentence that says, “In 1988, Rogers and [bandmate Brad] Smith left Mississippi for Los Angeles to pursue their musical interests.” It’s an easy one to read over, but sort of fascinating. You were 18. What does it entail, being that young and picking up and moving? Did you drive? Fly? Where’d you stay? How’d you know where to go? Look? Be?
R.S.: Brad and I packed everything we owned into an early 80s Honda hatchback … a couple of guitars, sleeping bags, clothes, music. Honestly, we were completely nuts. Looking back on it, I understand now the risks. We were blessed with complete ignorance of what we were doing, and we just assumed that it would work. We were pretty matter of fact about the “dream.” We had been plotting it for a couple of years, not telling our families and whatnot, which in both our cases were somewhat fragmented. We had each other, and that was something that came to be very important once we got there. We didn’t know anyone, nobody would rent us a place to live, we ran out of money pretty quickly … I had to talk Brad out of standing on a corner on Santa Monica. We were in dire straits for a while. Neither of us had ever spent much time at all in a city, and I don’t think I had even been on an airplane at that point. I remember when we arrived in Los Angeles … we drove straight past it on the 101—out of the Valley toward Santa Barbara. We kept waiting for it to look like we imagined it, and it just didn’t from the freeway. I remember it was late in the afternoon by the time we turned back around toward Hollywood. We did not have a lot of cassettes in the car, but I remember REM’s “Document,” the Rolling Stones’ “Hot Rocks,” the Doobie Brothers’ “Greatest Hits,” AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds,” GnR’s “Appetite” and some lame folk shit that Brad enjoyed but I hated. One of the first things we did that evening was go to Tower Records on Sunset. We bought Jane’s Addiction’s “Nothing’s Shocking,” because I had seen an article about it in Rolling Stone, and we were completely floored.
J.P.:I’m 43, and in the process of getting my masters degree. And I hate it. Like, r-e-a-l-l-y hate it. I feel like attending college has sorta passed me by. But you went back for both an undergrad degree, then a law degree. Why? What was the inspiration? And was it hard getting back into education? To thinking again as a student?
R.S.: I always read a lot of philosophy books—much of which I did not understand. But I made myself think. So when I went for that gear, it was still there. However, “getting back into education” would require having been into it in the first place, which I did not do. Once I got into the guitar, I was just obsessed. I missed the maximum number of days possible from grades 10-thru-12, skipping out to engage in my true studies. I’ll say this, though—it’s certainly not too late to do this if you’ve got a lick of sense. It just requires being interested and focused. Had I gone to college on a more conventional path, it would’ve been a disaster. I had to get my ya ya’s out, or at least enough of them so that I can concentrate. Still have a ya here and there … in fact, a lot of them. Always.
J.P.:As I mentioned, you played Woodstock ’94. I remember being a young newspaper writer, wondering, “Is this a great event or corporate nonsense? Is this cool or contrived?” You were there. What do you remember? And what was it?
R.S.: It was better in hindsight than in the moment. I had grown tired of being around crowds all the time—I think we all did. It was logistically difficult as well. A blur. I remember this: Airplane from Hawaii to New York, van from New York City airport to upstate near the festival, hotel for a few hours, van to somewhere else near the venue, another van, a helicopter (very cool) over the crowd, land backstage (really far from the stage), another van to a trailer, wait, then play. We were suffering the lingering effects of some substance procured from Porno for Pyros in Hawaii, and so many of us couldn’t get the snarl off our faces. The band was not great that day … it just didn’t click, but Shannon was amazing. We were doing a bunch of stupid stuff with our show at that time … refusing to deliver what we were capable of, simply because we had to make it “different” every single time. We could’ve delivered the goods and met Shannon on his level, but we just weren’t in the right headspace … frustrating.
J.P.:I love Blind Melon. I really do. But I wonder—and this might sound weird—do you love Blind Melon? Like, would you say you guys are amazing? Great? So-so? Do you think, had Shannon lived, you guys go on toe legendary things? Or do you peter out, like so many other bands?
R.S.: Sorta like asking me if I love my left leg. It’s difficult to be objective about my left leg, or the other one for that matter. I will go to my grave knowing that we would’ve really been great. We were in a period of rapid development when Shannon died. When we wrote/recorded the first record, I had been playing guitar only for a few years. It was still very difficult for me to play—perhaps it sounds that way. By the second record, we had developed a lot, and there were just too many ideas. We couldn’t address everything that everyone was doing. Much of it was good. I have a ton of outtakes songs that were coming together and I think they were potentially amazing. We would’ve forgotten all those had we gotten to the writing process for a third record. It was just happening really fast, and everyone had gotten so much better. I contend that nobody sounded exactly like us, and we would not be an easy band to cover. It was just crazy … nobody would play “normal” stuff. Everybody was driven to make it unique, and everyone had very high standards for what was acceptable. Fairly competitive within the band, and everybody wanted to shine. Much of it was a product of immaturity and substance abuse, but there were moments when it would stop you in your tracks. We were getting to the point where we could’ve tied those moments together. For us at least, it was just crushing to stop where we did … I’ll never get over it.
J.P.:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
R.S.: Greatest moment was the very first note I heard out of Shannon’s mouth. That’s when I knew we would do something. When Brad and I arrived in Los Angeles, we had plain ol’ dumb optimism, and for no good reason. However, after looking around for a while, and trying to work with some other singers, we came to realize it was going to be difficult, and perhaps that the odds were against us. But then Shannon opened his mouth, and it was incredibly musical in a way that was perfect for the style we had developed along the way. Christopher and Glen joined us and it was complete. It was perfect, or at least we knew it would be.
Lowest moment? Hmm … we had a couple of failed recording sessions that were frustrating. Hard to think of any performance as a low moment … when people watch and listen, you’re an asshole if you don’t appreciate that. I’ve had plenty of shows where I played poorly, but I can’t say I would’ve rather not played any of them.
J.P.:Why do you think bands with members in their late 30s, early 40s can’t score on the regular pop charts? What I mean is, even had “For My Friends” been the second coming of, say, Abby Road, there’s no way it would have been a staple on pop radio, because kids wouldn’t have responded. But … why? Isn’t good music good music?
R.S.: It’s always been a youth-driven biz, and rightfully so. Young people will always be an endless source of new ideas, and most of them do not want to hear from “old” people. And “old” people aren’t as invested in it once they have families and mortgages. It just doesn’t seem all that complicated to me. I submit that rock music, or pop music, is best made by and for young people. Abby Road was made by some 20-year olds. There’s a certain amount of room for “adult” artists, but those records need to be very well rendered to break out of that limited market. I like about half of “For My Friends,” and think it could’ve been better had we not been going through our usual difficulties … I know a lot of bands are internally unstable, but this one is exponentially more so than most.
J.P.:I know it’s been a long time, but … your lead singer dies. You’re still a very young guy. It happens—Bam. What are you thinking? Like, you find out, you digest the news. Are you like, “OK, new singer”? Or are you, “Shit, we’re fucked”? Or are you simply overcome by grief?
R.S.: Chaos. What to do? The first-order problem was the death of my true friend. A few hours later you’re supposed to be onstage, and people start asking whether you’ll go to the venue and say something …
We just didn’t have any way to deal with it. We were already winging it on the road, as always, and then we had to figure out what to do. The worst was getting on a plane and flying back to Seattle and then sitting in my house by myself. It took me about 15 minutes to figure out that I had to leave. I was on the road with all my stuff driving to New York City within three days. We thought about a new singer, and even looked around, but we were just clueless and didn’t know what else to do. We should’ve known that the star of the band was gone and we were over … but it was sort of like waking up and discovering the laws of physics were no longer in effect. What would you do? It took us many years to even be available to the idea that we could keep going. And Travis came along and was really great, so that got us going.
J.P.: I’m gonna throw a random one at you: A few weeks ago the wife and I went to see Hall and Oates. It was a huge outdoor amphitheater, sold out—and they played a 50-minute set. I thought it was pretty bullshit, and I LOVE Hall and Oates. What says you? Is there a minimal amount one must play? Does it matter how many hits you have, or how old you are?
R.S.: We’re pretty conscientious about giving people their money’s worth. I don’t know many performers who aren’t. And stuff happens. Maybe Daryl gave John an unusually aggressive wedgie before the show and it set John off … no matter how hard you try, sometimes people don’t get their money’s worth. That sucks, but it happens. We’ve cancelled so many shows, tours, appearances, etc. I always feel terrible, because I know how I would feel in that situation.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH ROGERS STEVENS:
• Five greatest guitarists of your lifetime?: Keef, EVH, Jack White, Clapton!—and I’m leaving an open slot for all the ones I love but will not remember right now.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Anna Kendrick, Travis Warren, Bartolo Colon, Milwaukee, John Carlos, Willie Gault, Johnny Manziel, long walks on the beach, People Magazine, egg sandwiches, wood tables, “Gin and Juice”: Kinda fucked up to throw Travis in there, because I now have to put him first or otherwise listen to him bitch and moan. I can’t help it … I want Johnny Manziel to do well because I love a fuckup who can still manage to excel. I’m writing this on a wood table, so that’s something I enjoy. Milwaukee is difficult, but I am open to exploring it with someone who really knows it. I like to walk on the beach for about 15-to-20 minutes, but then get freaked out because I think I’m being lazy—I realize that’s somewhat lame. “Gin and Juice” is familiar … I know the track … we were so busy at the time that I didn’t give it the attention it warrants. For the rest, I’m familiar with the sports people, but don’t know who Anna Kendrick is. I’m sure she’s fabulous. Love an egg sandwich on occasion.
• My kids think Christmas in Hollis is the greatest hip-hop song of all time. Which is sorta odd, because they’re Jewish. Thoughts?: My kids are a coupla half-breeds, so I’m familiar with the challenges of Christmas. We go down to Mississippi and they love Christmas, etc., of course because of Santa. I think the Jews need a Santa-like gimmick to really put things over the top. I know there have been efforts, but it’s tough to compete with the presents. I spent some time in Israel, and it’s the most extraordinary place I’ve ever been. I just realized that I’ve never heard “Christmas in Hollis.”
• Ever thought you were about to die in a plane crash? What do you recall?: Yes. My wife and I were flying into San Paulo in the dark. There was turbulence. Or just one turbulent moment. It felt like God had punched the nose of the plane. People hit the roof, and I looked over at my wife … she was so whacked out on Xanax (a necessity for her) that the drool sort of sloshed off her lower lip. She looked at me and asked me if we were in Rio yet. I told her to go to sleep and I’d see her on the other side hopefully …
• I fear death—the inevitability of nothingness. Does it plague you at all? If no, why?: Best question ever. I live with a constant sense of existential dread that is neither interesting nor novel. I am one of those who will never find inner peace. I’m just going to squirm around for a few more years and then die. And I have no expectations for anything beyond that. I’m not ruling it out, but there’s just no way to know. I do know this—atheism and any sort of religious belief or other belief of the afterlife or of meaning to any of this … these are all equally illogical positions. And “meaning” is whatever you can manufacture while you’re here. Like Santa …
• Five reasons one should make West Point, Mississippi his next vacation destination: 1. People—Southern hospitality is a very real thing. I took my commie Jewish in-laws down there, and they were shocked. They loved it. 2. The South gets a bad rap, and much of that is legitimate, but if you went to West Point, you’d be in Howlin’ Wolf’s hometown, a short drive from the origins of William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, Elvis, etc … just go down the list. A good portion of what I consider to be great American culture comes from right there—but it’ll take you a while to get a sense of it. 3. Unlike anywhere else in the world, I feel completely comfortable there … the pace of life makes sense to me, even though I’ve lived in cities since I left at age 18. 4. The music all makes perfect sense to me because it reflects that pace. I can play any of it because it’s just in me.
• Would you rather receive a check for $1 million in the mail, or never have to go to the bathroom again?: I place a premium on bathroom time … highly valued in a house with two grade-schoolers. Tough to put a price on it. Hmm … I’ll get back to you on this one.
• Who wins in the third Rocky Balboa-Clubber Lang fight?: Nobody wins that fight. Or they both do. At this point, I’m guessing they would both benefit from the pay-per-view.
So a few weeks ago I was watching Back to The Future with my nephews, and it occurred to me that the story concerns a guy, Marty McFly, who travels back in time a whopping 30 years, from 1985 to 1955 … as we were watching 30 years after the movie’s release.
Trippy, right? But not nearly as trippy as the existence of today’s Quaz, and his relationship with time’s eternal ticking clock.
Back in 1988, when he was 13, David Moscow made his cinematic debut in “Big,” portraying a 12-year-old boy (Josh Baskin) who wishes to be big, then wakes up as 32-year-old Tom Hanks. Well—in a twist that makes my head spin—Moscow is now eight years older than Hanks was at the time. He’s fully big.
He also happens to be fully fascinating. David has lived a rich theatrical life, appearing in such wide-ranging vehicles as “Kate and Allie,” “Newsies” and “Seinfeld.” He starred on Broadway; tracked wolves in Arizona and New Mexico; talked surfing with Uma Thurman; dated Kerry Washington; voted for Ralph Nader. On and on and on. As you read this, he’s hoping a clever, funny Kickstarter campaign can help his directorial debut, Desolation, reach audiences sooner than later. He’s one of the few Quazes I’ve met over lunch, and I could have stayed another three hours. Riveting dude.
David Moscow, you are the only man to have ever played “Jimmy Wiggen” in The Wizard of Loneliness. And now you are the only man to ever be the 224th Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN:So David, my first book was about the 1986 Mets. It came out 12 years ago. And people sometimes say, “Oh, I loved that book!” And I feel like it was another part of my life; like it wasn’t even me. And here you are, three decades removed from the biggest role of your life. When people are like, “Oh, I love ‘Big‘!” Do you still have a connection, or are you like, “Um, I was 13”?
DAVID MOSCOW: It’s such just a part of my life that you don’t even think about it. People come up to me … I can tell, if we were just sitting here and someone was about to come up to me in five minutes, I could see already that whispers were gonna happen and I could probably tell you what movie they were going to say I like you for. The big three are Big, Newsies and Honey. By far those are the big three.
J.P.:Is ‘Big’ a huge frontrunner?
D.M.: No, because it was wasn’t the latest. At this point Honey and Newsies. Newsies is just one of those cult films. But it’s just part of my existence.
J.P.:You have no beef with it?
D.M.: No beef at all. I go around the world and people smile at me and are happy to see me. That’s phenomenal to have that. There was a period of time … I was a child actor, then stopped for two years. Went to college for two years. I went to Hampshire, then Columbia. That didn’t work. I dropped out of Hampshire, then went and tracked wolves in Arizona and New Mexico for Arizona Fish and Game. Because they were reintroducing captive bred wolves, and they needed to know if there was a viable population that was still there. So I lived out in forest service cabins for eight, nine months. And I did botanical surveys and tracked wolves. And tracking wolves was literally, you had headphones and a headset and you would go HOOOOOWWWWWWL! and then you’d wait and hear in the distance HOOOOOWWWWWWL! Then you would walk and try and find it. You’d find tracks.
J.P.:Um, was it scary?
D.M.: No. It was amazing. The only scary thing was one night a buddy of mine had gone out … you pack your bags, and you’re with eight people and you tell them, “OK, we’re going to check out this district in the park.” It’d take you a week to walk. And we’d always find out where there were hot springs, and we’d be like, “That’s where we’re going to check out!” So we went out to the hot springs and we’re laying out one night. It’s me and a guy named Rich, who was also in the program. And we had a fire and we heard a crash in the brush, around the bend of the river. We were startled, but then we went back to bed. And when we woke up in the morning we see at the edge of the fire light where a mountain lion had bedded down and basically sat there and watched us all night. And we went around the bend and found the deer that had been killed was covered. So obviously a cat had been following us. And the cats follow you when you’re in there. That was the only time it was scary …
J.P.:“David Moscow, the boy best known for his role as a young Tom Hanks in the film Big, was found …”
D.M.: That’s right. That’s right. I was flying to Sundance this one time, and coming over into Utah there’s always terrible turbulence because of the mountains. And Nick Nolte was on the flight. The turbulence was so bad everyone was screaming, freaking out. And all I kept thinking was, “Nick Nolte … and others died on this flight …”
J.P.:Well, you’re an “other.”
From his breakout role in ‘Big.’
J.P.:So, to the beginning. Why become an actor?
D.M.: I was 11, and I was a rambunctious child. In today’s world I probably would have been all doped up. But I was just running around like crazy. It was guitar lessons, science—just trying to find things to keep me occupied. And my fifth grade teacher put me in the class play.
J.P.:Do you remember her name?
D.M.: Mrs. Cannon. And Mr. Herb Bernstein, my sixth grade teacher, got me in the next year’s play. It was called A Tale of Two Detectives. There were two stories, two one acts, two detectives solving the case in two different plays. It was a cool idea. Then Mr. Bernstein put a clipping that was a film called Five Corners with Jodie Foster and Jon Leguizano. They were looking for 10-year-old white kids from the Bronx. So I went down on my bike with some friends. We all auditioned and they liked me.
J.P.:Do you remember it well?
D.M.: I don’t remember any of the lines. But I remember the room. It’s a memory of a memory, kind of. I remember the room and them saying goodbye to me. It was at Lehman College. They called and wanted me for the part, but my parents had been saving money for me to visit my aunt in Spain in the summer, so we turned down the role. And I went to Europe.
J.P.:Were you heartbroken?
D.M.: We didn’t have a TV, so I didn’t really know. I’d maybe seen two movies at that point my entire life.
D.M.: My aunt took me to Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. And I saw Fantasia. I remember it was Fantasia because when we got back from Fantasia my house had been robbed. That’s probably why we didn’t go to any movies; we were afraid our house would be robbed. Those were the two movies I’d seen. So when I got back from Spain the casting directors had given my name to an agent who called. It was the big New York youth agent at the time—J. Michael Bloom was the agency, I met with a woman named Heidi, and she liked me. And then I auditioned for Kate and Allie. I did that show. That was my first audition.
J.P.:What do you remember of Kate and Allie?
D.M.: I did two episodes. It was a lot of fun. The audience laughing was like the coolest thing ever. And I loved Jane Curtain—we got along really well. It was a blast. Again, everyone was sort of happy to see you. And my second audition was for Big, but that was with Robert De Niro and Penny Marshall, not Hanks. I auditioned with Penny. I went into a room with 10 kids and Penny just talked to us. She’d be like, “You? Where you from? What are you doing?” I think I got a callback to play the best friend, and then when Hanks got it … she’s from the Bronx, and she’s like, “Where’s that kid from the Bronx? He looks like Tom.” And that was it.
J.P.:Is that as enormous a life changer as it seems?
D.M.: I mean, when I first started acting I was very lucky or successful. Or maybe both. I booked the first four things I auditioned for. I think that’s because I was new and I was this weird kid who had these radical parents and had no boundaries and was loud and chatty. And it was, “Oh, that’s interesting.” I was very precocious. Which, in school, is very annoying. But in an audition it’s exactly the type of kid they want.
With Jessica Alba in Honey.
J.P.:Where’d you grow up?
D.M.: I’m from New York. I mean, we moved around a lot. Grand Concourse, Preston Avenue, Kings Bridge, Davidson Avenue, um, and we ended up Van Cortland Park. And moving around as a kid anyway is tough, especially as a guy. But moving around in the Bronx is something else.
J.P.:What’d your parents do? Why so many moves?
D.M.: My mom, Patricia, was a nurse … studying to be a nurse. My dad, Jon, was a community activist. Like a radical. He loves my Bernie Sanders shirt.
J.P.:What does that mean—’like a radical’?
D.M.: To go back even further, my parents were both radicals in the 1960s and 70s, and still through today. There was a certain point where my dad was considered armed and dangerous by the FBI. What’s wild is now it’s the kind of stuff that’s largely considered normal today. Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, labor laws, pre-labor, social services, the safety net. He worked with the Black Panthers in Portland, Oregon …
J.P.:Wait. Aren’t you Jewish?
D.M.: Half. My dad is Jewish, my mom is Mormon. I was raised neither. Non-religious, but culturally, I guess, both. We did all the holidays. We did Passover and Christmas with her family. And my parents met in Portland. My dad was going to Reed College. He grew up on Long Island, and at 13 he joined Core (Congress of Racial Equality), which was a civil rights organization. He became chair of the housing committee of Long Island CORE when he was 15. And he graduated from high school early and went to Reed to get as far away from his parents as possible. And the first time my mom saw him he was getting arrested at a demonstration in Oregon, and she thought he was cute. He was cursing a cop outside the Frye roofing company. I think Nixon was coming to a factory, and they were demonstrating the Nixon visit. And Pat came up to him as he was cursing the cop. My dad had to subpoena my mom because she saw his arrest. She thought he was cute And in his big seduction move he invited her to a meeting and when they got to the meeting there was nobody else there. And he said, “Oh, I guess I got the date wrong. You wanna just go out to a movie?”
He worked with Kent Ford, who was the head of the Panthers in Oregon. My dad also became this guy—they were building health clinics and dental clinics there. Something a lot of people don’t know is California became the first state to do breakfast programs and lunch programs at schools and it was because the Panthers in Oregon were giving out free breakfast and lunch, and the state was like, “Oh, my God. They’re accruing lots of power. We have to do this!” They were sort of doing the same thing but with health care up in Oregon. And my dad came on and fund-raised, made connections to doctors, dealt with the city …
J.P.:So how did they pay the bills?
D.M.: It was sketchy. My dad delivered a radical newspaper called the Willamette Bridge. And he wrote. It was a whole group of people. And in New York, for a period of time, he did typesetting for Penthouse and High Times to make a little cash on the side, while writing radical newsletters and stuff like that. And he did computer stuff for Y&R, a big advertising company. There was a period of time where he and my mom—we were on welfare. I mean, it wasn’t pretty. But we also lived six, seven people in the house. I have a younger brother, Lev, he’s a teacher in New York. But a whole bunch of radicals all lived in the same house, shared the bills.
With his wife, Karen.
J.P.:Random question—how many times in your life have you watched ‘Big’ start to finish?
D.M.: In that? No. I’m good … I’m OK. But kid actors today are 10 times better than kid actors were expected to be back then. Be charming, smile and look cute. And then people hand you checks. But today—this kid from Sixth Sense was Academy Award-worthy. These kids are touching places within themselves that I didn’t really discover until I was, like, 19-years old.
J.P.:So you didn’t have a motivation in ‘Big’? Like, what’s your motivation in this scene?
D.M.: Nah. Penny in that one would be like, “Much sadder.” You know? Without any training. And because I never watched films as a kid I was a clean slate. Which was good, I think. But I started to run into problems was when I got to about 17 or 18, where you start getting kids who have been raised on film; kids who have been going to school and are hyper-talented and have tools. And I was still just smiling and, you know, I had gotten two or three big things young. You can ride that for a little bit even if you’re not particularly good. That’s why I stopped. I was starting to go into auditions and it was hard. Like, you’d have to cry.
J.P.:Could you cry on demand?
D.M.: At that time, no.
J.P.:Can you make yourself cry now?
D.M.: Yeah. But the big change that occurred was … so I stopped tracking the wolves, went to Columbia, and got a Broadway show while at Columbia. It was called What’s Wrong With This Picture? So this was 1994. Donald Margulies wrote it and Joe Mantello directed. Faith Prince, who had just won the Tony for Guys and Dolls, was in it. And I was the lead and I was not very good. So the story is about, my mother died, my dad and I can’t connect, so she comes back from the dead to help us bond. And at the end I have to turn to her and say, “How can I ever miss you if you never leave?” So she walks out the door, and I’m supposed to turn around and bawl. And it wasn’t happening—all through previews.
J.P.:You could not cry?
D.M.: I was on stage being like … I was the lead in the show, and I was sitting there thinking, “I’m gonna have Greek food tonight. I’ll call up Earnest.” And then it’d be my line and I’d say my line, and then when it was done I’d go right back to thinking about Greek food. So I’d get to the end, and I’d be standing there, and … nothing. So the producers sat me down and they said, “You have to cry! The blue hairs in the front row need to have this emotional thing. Can we put pictures on the table and you walk down from the door and sit down and look at the pictures. Will that help you?” I’ll try—but nothing. So it’s a week to go in previews, and I’m like, holy shit. This is terrifying. And now there are all these rumors how Sean Penn is a character from the moment he wakes up all the way through a whole shoot. He never leaves character. What would that be like? I’m gonna try it. So I got up and I was Peter every day, all the way through to opening night. And I think the third day I tried it, I say, “How can I ever miss you if you never leave?” and I close the door and I turn around and—whoosh! Tears. I didn’t have to go down and look at any photos. The old ladies in front were clapping, the audience was clapping. And I was like, “Oh, this shit is good. I like that. Whatever that is, I want more of that.”
So I joined a theater company with some friends. It was very small, so we all sort of ran it together. It was called A Theater Co., and it was in the basement of these lofts in West Chelsea. Back then it was like you rode on your bike and transsexual hookers would step out of the doorway. But what was cool about the space was there was a 200 seater we could do, a 50 seater, and the lobby was good for art stuff. There were two days out of the year where we’d do a full day of three plays, back to back to back.
And I got real snotty about acting, about being an artist. People would come up to me about “Big,” and I’d be like, “I’m beyond that.” But I also got better. We would change plays every two weeks. You’d get a call at 3 o’clock in the morning—“I wanna do 4-H Club. Tomorrow we’ll build a set.” You could see it in the auditions I was doing at the same time. Whenever I talk to young people here who wanna start, I say, “Find a theater company where you can work a lot, and just put yourself up there. You will soon realize if you belong in this business. The audience will tell you and your cast members will tell you. If you keep getting hired to do work you’re doing something good. And you should stick around.”
So from that I started getting indie movies. I had a small part in a film called Hurricane Streetswhich ended up winning Sundance that year. And then I had a role in two films the following year—Restaurant and River Red. They both went to Sundance.
The Playbill from, ‘What’s Wrong With This Picture?’
J.P.:Does Sundance matter to you?
D.M.: It’s fun. Yeah, it’s fun. Especially during that period of time. I was such the snob, I was like, “I’m at Sundance!” Now I’ve been there a bunch and it’s a fun time and you see a bunch of friends; the same people you see here but you get to see them there. And my Mormon side is all in Utah so I party with my cousins.
J.P.:Do you go out drinking with your Mormon cousins?
D.M.: I do. The Jack Mormons—the ones who have fallen off. But the other ones ski and snowboard. So I go snowboarding with those guys.
J.P.: Do you feel like it’s a rite of passage for young actors to come up and go through a douche baggy stage where you’re arrogant and overrate your importance?
D.M.: You know, to the outside world it may ring douchey. But it’s important to the craft. It’s like being a grad student. There’s a great line in 30 Rock. He’s the second worst person in the world. And she asks, “Who’s the worst person in the world?” And he goes, “Grad students.” It’s a great line. You have to get intense about something and care about something. You have to in order to stand up and give a thesis or deliver a line. Because people are going to attack what you have to say. So you have to maybe put up this omnipotent front that says, “I own this place.” So I think it’s good.
J.P.:Did you have dreams of being the next De Niro, the next Robert Redford …
D.M.: Yeah. Particularly during that period of time I probably felt like I was the best actor in New York. But I also had the fire for that. I was drinking and doing drugs and out until the wee hours of the morning for the experiences. Nothing was more important than that. De Niro was going to direct a movie about the beginning of the porn industry, and he got all of his friends to come do a reading. They were looking for a kid to do the reading and play a young Sean Penn. And they called me up and I was like, “I’ve made it!” And of course, it never works out how you think. I did the reading, it was phenomenal, I was going surfing later that day. It was John Turturro, Sean Penn, Chaz Palminteri, Uma Thurman. Just great. And this kid who was playing the young Turturro was sitting at another table with me. We’re sitting at this table talking surfing, because I was going to go out to Montauk to surf. And Sean Penn came over and sat down and said, “Really?” He started talking surfing with us. Because Penn was there, Uma Thurman comes over. Then Chaz Palminteri comes over. And pretty soon the whole table is around us. Holy smokes, this is magic!
D.M.: No. No. If it was De Niro and Sean Penn and I hadn’t gotten the part, sure.
J.P.:What do you want in your life now?
D.M.: I enjoy the theater company. I’ve started a production company that sort of does that but for film. I have a band of people and investors.
J.P.:So I’ve sold a couple of my books for movie rights. First time it happens—amazing! Movie! And they tell you who they’re looking at, the director. And the last time it happened, I had zero excitement because I had no faith. And I don’t know how anyone lives in this world. Because they tell you everything is great, they love everything, we know who’s gonna do this and this. I don’t get excited anymore. Is it all bullshit? Do you have to get used to people feeding you bullshit?
D.M.: No, no. Because now I’m on the other side.
J.P.:You’re the feeder?
D.M.: But it’s not bullshit. What happens is you read something and you think it’s fucking great. And it is great. And then the journey is so huge that it’s a fucking crapshoot. What you hope to gain is a champion. If you have a champion these guys will work their ass off, because they don’t want to waste their time. But it’s not bullshit. It’s both great and terrible. Like, you go into meetings … we have the life rights to this Mexican singer named Chalino Sanchez. Incredible story. He was huge. He created this kind of music called narco-corrido—he sings about cartels. And cartels would hire him and he would sing about them. And then another cartel would sweep in and hire him away. And the other cartel would try and kill him.
So literally he’s on stage in front of 15,000 people, someone pulls out a gun trying to kill him, he pulls out his gun to protect himself. He was a bandito wild man. And then he ended up going back to Sinaloa, his hometown. It was the first time he’d been there in, like, 30 years; at 13 he shot the local cartel leader because the guy raped his sister, and he escaped to LA. He’s like, “I’m going back down.” Everyone tells him not to go. There’s a documentary on YouTube, “The Dangerous Life of Chalino Sanchez.” He’s singing away, and someone hands him a note. And his face collapses. The note says, “You’re gonna die.” He’s found dead an hour later on the side of the road. I bought the life rights from his wife. And then at the funeral the band is playing, no one is singing because he’s in the casket. And the son gets up, puts on his dad’s cowboy boots, cowboy hat, starts singing his dad’s songs. He starts touring with the band. Eight years later he starts introducing rap into his dad’s music. He becomes the biggest Mexican singer, he decides to return to his dad’s hometown, and he’s found dead in an accident.
So we have that, and it’s wow. It’s fucking wow! Right? We have the life rights, we’re gonna make the movie, the wife-mom is excited. And then you go and try to make a Mexican-American story in the United States today and try and find funding. And it’s just the grind.
J.P.: Do you know if you’re in a movie that’s shit?
J.P.:How do you know?
D.M.: The script. It’s painful.
J.P.: But have you ever been in something where the script is good but it’s heading …
D.M.: No. Never. Not where the script was good and then they didn’t do a good job. I’ve been places where the script was mediocre and the directors were good enough to elevate it to good.
D.M.: Yes. Going in I was like, “I’m gonna try and do the best I can with a type of character that a lot of times people butcher, because they, like, overplay it.” Yo! Yo! Yo! I knew these guys from New York. I’ll just be those guys. So I wanted to do the method and be this character from beginning to end and do my best work. For what they wanted to do, it was exactly it. It was exactly what it should have been.
J.P.: A solid, enjoyable movie?
D.M.: Yeah. It’s fun. People loved that movie. People come up to me and are ecstatic about that movie. “They’re like, ‘Yo! You were that asshole!’” And I say, “Why was I that asshole? If she would have just slept with me, there wouldn’t have been a problem.” They love when I say that. “Yeah! You’re the man!” So it’s fun. I’m an actor. I get paid to act. I don’t control the rest of that stuff. When I wanted more control, I turned to directing. So now I’m directing my first film. As an actor, you talk to the director and say, “This doesn’t work right here” and the director is like, “That’s what really happened.” So you have to go do that.
J.P.:Have you ever had a real, true, hardcore conflict with a director?
D.M.: So I got a movie called Nearing Grace. And the first day on that film the director and I had a big blowout over whether I was going to wear a hat. I wanted a hat, and I wanted a hat for a number of reasons. One was, it’s sort of complicated. The character had extensions and I had long hair, and they had tried to dye the long hair. It was synthetic and they didn’t know it, so when they tried to dye it it stripped the color. So it was gray, and I was like 24-years old. I just looked freaky. It wasn’t gray like normal gray. It was metallic. And I was a hippie so I went looking all over Portland, Oregon, where we were shooting, and I found a straw hat, and it was cool for my character. I put it on, and it was also to help the makeup people. So first the producer leans her head in and she said, “Hey, how you doing?” And she saw the hat and I could tell she wasn’t thrilled and she walked away. An hour later the director walked in and he said, “Hey, I hear you’ve got a hat!” I was like, “What the fuck is this?” I was like, “Yeah! You like it?” He said, “No, I think you should take it off.” I was like, “Think about it. I really like it.” He said, “I have been thinking about it—for five years as I’ve been making this movie.” I was like, “Fine, I won’t wear the hat.” He goes, “Fine.” Bam! He slams the door. I found out later they had a discussion about firing me because they didn’t like my attitude. So I went into it without the hat, and the next day I went in and I had a heavy-duty crying scene. It’s one of my favorite films I’ve ever done, and the director and I became very good friends. The next day he saw he didn’t have to worry about me—I was in it. And so I wore the hat the rest of the shoot. I was living this guy, I was in Oregon, which is like hippie central. So fun.
And I would drive up into the mountains, take all my clothes off and swim in lakes. I remember I was swimming in this one lake and these Girl Scouts came around in a canoe and they were like, “Aggghhh!” and I was like, “Aggghhh!” I found my clothes, jumped in the car, ran away. But I was just this dude … very different than my Bronx kind of guy. It was fun.
J.P.:Because usually when you break up with someone, that’s the end …
D.M.: They’re ghosts. They disappear. Is it weird? You have to come to terms with it. You know, we’re on relatively good terms so it’s not terrible. I’m not sure my wife enjoys it; she Googles me and my past shows up. But Kerry is smart, she’s pretty, she’s bad-ass. She should be on the cover of magazines. The only time it’s negative is I get phone calls from people who wanna stir the pot kind of stuff. Page 6—what do you think about this?
J.P.: They want you to be angry?
D.M.: Yeah. And I wish her the best.
J.P.: “He snidely said …”
D.M.: Yes! And you have to watch for that. You get people who interview you, and you think it’s a friendly thing, and I’m pretty open, and you come back and read something and you’re like, “What is this?”
J.P.: That won’t happen here.
D.M.: Thank you. Look, I’m extremely happily married. When Kerry and I were together, I was not good in relationships at all. So, like, I learned a lot from that relationship and the breakup of that relationship on how to be in a relationship and be good in a relationship and a good partner. Which I was not that person then. So she took one for the team basically, and Karen got the fruits of Kerry’s labor. Karen is a phenomenal woman. Smart, bad-ass, gorgeous, great personality. I’m just lucky I found another one who was just wonderful.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH DAVID MOSCOW:
• How did you meet your wife?: Three times. Once on a red carpet. She was PR, but we just said hello. She did PR when she just graduated college. Two, I hit on her at a bar and got her number, texted her ridiculous stuff like, “Do you cook? Do you clean? Do you read?” I thought I was being witty. I wasn’t. That was seven or eight years ago. And lastly she came to a party at my house. That was 5 ½ years ago.
• Has Obama been a disappointment for you?: I have mixed feelings. I wrote an article for Huffington Post the day after the election that was basically like, He’s a centrist—liberals shouldn’t get very excited. The best thing that will happen to him is the left will be more free to do stuff; you won’t be under attack as much. And I think that’s the case. Particularly with the gay marriage stuff that just happened. I think Obamacare isn’t going to be real until there’s a public option. The droning and the going after whistleblowers and this last trade thing they did—terrible. But in general, he’s a centrist Democrat, and the country is moving to the left a lot. And that couldn’t have happened under a Romney.
• Five favorite athletes from your lifetime:Joe Morris—he was a Giant when I started liking football; Don Mattingly, Patrick Ewing, Jorge Posada. I really like Charles Oakley. And now it’s LeBron. First of all I hate Jordan. Everything I read about him sounds like he’s really evil. So I would like LeBron to be the greatest of all time. I think he’s great.
• The next president will be …:Hillary, I think. She’ll run against Marco Rubio. I think demographics are so leaning to the left, and Rubio will be on the wrong side of things that have already been determined. That time has passed.
• I’m gonna give you my least favorite line of any movie you’ve been in, and tell me why I’m wrong. The last scene of “Big” you say to your mom, “I missed you oh so much.” It just doesn’t sound like something a kid would say. Am I wrong?: No, it’s totally a movie line. It’s a movie line. It was ADRed—it was the first time I ever ADRed anything. The movie is done, you’re watching the movie and they say, “Say something here.” And they give you 20 lines and you just spit them out and they pick whichever they like best. I’ve already run inside, and it’s just Mercedes Ruehl and I talking inside the house. So I’m literally just like—they’re telling me to say this line, then another line, then another line. Then they pick one.
• Have you ever said to someone, “I miss you oh so much”?: No. But I can’t believe that’s the line. It’s from probably the best movie I’ve been in. It’s a great movie.
• Three memories from your appearance on Seinfeld: Oh, my gosh. That was cool. So the Broadway show I did, the guy who played my grandfather was Jerry Stiller. He happened to be on that episode, and his soon-to-be daughter-in-law was also on the episode. So my first memory was the audition process. I had flown out to LA, and my agents were like, “While you’re here, just audition and you’ll write it off on your taxes?” OK. Then they said, “You wanna do Seinfeld?” I was freaking out—Seinfeld’s my favorite show. I called my brother. He was like, “Dude, no way!” So I go in and what was cool was in New York, it’s such a small actor community you know everybody, and then someone disappears and you think, “I haven’t seen What’s His Name around.” And it’s, “Oh, he moved to LA.” So I went to visit, and it was the first time I auditioned out here, and I saw so many people at the audition. I was auditioning for two people—the gang leader who seduces Kramer, and for one of the guys who George is interviewing. So I go in and I’m nervous and they’re laughing and laughing. And I started to realize they weren’t laughing at my performance. They were laughing at the lines—they loved their own jokes they were writing. Jerry was in there, I shook his hand. I got home that night and I got the call I was gonna go in on Tuesday. I called my brother, he flipped out. Then I went in on Tuesday. The coolest thing was, most shows you table read Monday morning, then rehearse Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Thursday night you perform before the live audience. With this, you did Tuesday half day, Wednesday full day, Thursday just in front of the audience. It was the shortest week. So the first day Tuesday I heard Jerry Stiller talking and he and his wife found me in my dressing room and were so warm. I became part of the legit team, and that was great.
And then, during the time when Jerry was getting a new deal from NBC, something like $1 million an episode, and the rest of the cast was negotiating. Some of the cast wanted to negotiate by themselves and the others wanted to negotiate as a team so they’d all get equal pay. There was dissension, who was going to do what. I was walking back from the green room toward the stage, and I got caught by the bleachers, and Jason Alexander and Michael Richards were behind the bleachers yelling at each other, and it was about the money. I couldn’t really move anywhere because they would see me, so I hung there three minuets in the dark as these two giants yelled at each other. And then I went on my way. Wild moment.
• Rank in order, favorite to least—Dave Winfield, kettle corn, Jessica Alba, The Avengers, Laguardia Airport, California Pizza Kitchen, Selena, outlet malls, “White Lines” (the song), clam chowder.: Clam chowder, Jessica Alba, White Lines, Laguardia, The Avengers, kettle corn, Winfield, outlet malls, Selena, CPK (because it isnt pizza!).
• Favorite book: That’s really hard. What was the last great book? This is such a strange book, but there’s a great book, “Guns, Germs and Steel”—the history of civilization and basically that civilization was environmentally determined.
• Ten years from now is California heading to water apocalypse?: No. People survive. Do I think … if I were in charge I’d just start making rules. I’d be like, “Any new buildings have to have gray water systems, have to have the ability to catch water.” Los Angeles wouldn’t be in a drought if 1/10 of the buildings caught their own water. That’s it. But in the long run, people shouldn’t be living in deserts and you shouldn’t be growing things in deserts. We’re going to have to find that equilibrium where we’re able to survive. They’re starting to recognize there are problems.
What I mean is, I love stumbling upon things, whether it’s a $12 Los Angeles Rams T-shirt at TJ Maxx or the best ice cream float on the streets of Austin. It’s cool and fun and serendipitous, and it also offers the opportunity for some darn good braggin’. You know—”Dude, there’s this [FILL IN THE BLANK] I found, and it’s awesome!”
Which leads me to the 222nd Quaz Q&A.
Several months ago, the wife and I were attending a farmer’s market here in Orange County. It was one of those things with a bunch of tents, some food trucks, overpriced iced coffee. Beautiful day, nice family time … and a fantastic musician, sorta hanging in the background. His name was Eric Kufs. He had a guitar, a beard and oodles upon oodles of talent. I’m not sure who to compare him to—I guess, gun to head, I go Paul Simon meets Ted Hawkins meets Dave Matthews meets Sam Cooke. But that’s an odd combination, so I’ll simply say he sounded terrific, and I wanted to scream at every loudmouth attendee, “Stop eating your damn burger and listen to this guy, because he’s fantastic!”
Instead, I tracked Eric down and asked him to do a Quaz.
And here we are.
Eric is based out of Southern California, and has a story to tell. About his band. About his solo career. And the loneliness of musicianship and the joys of musicianship; about trying to catch a break and grab your ear.
JEFF PEARLMAN:OK, Eric, first question: You’ve had this really interesting musical career, with lots of highs and experiences. And yet, I first heard you playing at a farmer’s market in Orange County, with a small amp under a small tent with some people listening and some people not listening on a hot day with a half-filled tip jar of singles. And I wondered, “Why? Why do a gig like that? Money? Fun? And is it hard to stay focused and excited when the crowd is distracted and kids and running left and right? Do you even think, “What the fuck am I doing here?”
ERIC KUFS: Well Jeff, the first reason is that I love to play and I consider any gig an opportunity to improve as a performer. Sure I’ve put in my 10,000 hours and then some, but I like to keep pushing myself.
The truth is that when I first moved from L.A. when I was 20, I spent some time working day jobs. Any time my band booked a tour, I’d have to quit whatever gig I had. As you probably know, clubs don’t pay artists very well and when you factor in the cost of travel, the road leaves you with very little. If you’re lucky, when you get back home, you have enough to barely get by as you search for another day job, usually at a coffee shop or whatever. As fun as the road could be, I began to dread coming home broke.
So in order to quell my anxiety about my finances, and keep focusing on my passion for music , I began to perform out on the streets of Los Angeles. For seven years, when I wasn’t on the road, I was a busker. Some of my fellow musicians and songwriters might have thought a little less of me for it at the time, but in my mind I was doing what I love for a living. To be honest I think most musicians would find it difficult to make the good living I made doing it. There were times it was challenging. Getting people walking past with their face in their phones to stop, listen and buy your CD or at the very least leave a tip is not easy. You have to be unique in your delivery and remain true to yourself in order to find ways to appeal to all types of people. This makes it rewarding, especially when you’re in a club and people are there to see you. You are instantly captivating and even an off night is better than another singer’s best.
So how do I end up playing a farmer’s market? Well, after years of playing on the street I have made enough friends and connections to sustain myself performing private events as well as touring (whether I’m backing up another songwriter or I’m promoting my own music). Occasionally I like to do farmer’s markets or street fairs that pay well enough. They help me keep my chops up and try new material. They’re also good for promotion and often lead to other bookings.
J.P.: I have a disease—“When I see a person performing and not many people listening and/or acknowledging said performer, I feel the need to approach performer and make him/her feel better with either compliments (if they’re sincere) or small talk.” Eric, is this dumb? Like, are most performers in those situations OK, or are they heartbroken and sad? Because I’m sure you’ve been there (hell, I’ve been there. Book signings with three attendees—and it’s awful for me).
E.K.: Most times these performers are sad. There have been many times when I played on the street in the drizzling rain hoping someone would take pity on me and drop a few hundred bucks in my tip jar. I’ve played in theaters for thousands of people completely enthralled with whatever I was doing and I might’ve been more concerned with how they were perceiving me than when I’m forced to close my eyes and focus on singing the song for myself. Sometimes there’s no other option but to use the sadness to create something beautiful even if you’re the only one to hear it. But I’ve played in clubs in Nashville for three, maybe five people, and that’s just depressing … no way around it.
As for your disease, I welcome the interaction of appreciative listeners in those situations but I’d like to speak for all of the professional musicians who have or have had any ambition or aspirations for a more fruitful career when I tell you this: “Do not say anything like, ‘Man what are you doing here?!’”
First of all, it’s a line from “Piano Man” and second of all it only reinforces the sadness of the situation. You can certainly compliment a performer as much as you’d like and even elaborate on how much of a treat it is to see them wherever it is you run across them, but don’t ask incredulously why they are there. (I mean, like why are any of us anywhere anyway dude, bro, man? Like really …) But seriously, it makes them feel like they’ve failed when the truth is that music is a difficult business and there are many different paths to success. The business has changed since when I was a kid and now more than ever it’s on the artists to be their own business manager, publicist, recording engineer, producer, and in some cases their own booking agent.
Jamming on the sax as a boy.
J.P.:Soup to nuts, what’s your writing process? I mean, you’ve written more than 1,000 songs. How? How do you start? Finish? And when do you know when a song is complete and ready?
E.K.: My writing process has changed a lot over time. Back when I was starting out I would write a poem, while sitting in math ignoring the teacher, and then I’d go home and instead of doing my math homework I’d find a melody for the poem on guitar. Now I seem to do more humming over chord patterns, or a few words will come to me that naturally fit and I’ll go from there. Every now and then a song will pour out fully formed but mostly I just sort of recognize interesting ideas or hear melodic hooks in your day to day.
There was a time when I took writing songs very seriously and I forced myself to record a song every day. Sometimes it was just a verse chorus idea or a tone poem kind of thing. This work helped me build up a muscle, so to speak. Now I can write a song quickly if someone needs one. Sometimes I’m hired to write a tune for a film or TV submission. But for my own recordings, I tend to let those songs come to me slowly over time. I begin playing them at shows and I let the performance dictate how the song evolves. Sometimes the melody and lyrics change. The song is done when I settle into a comfortable space with it on stage.
J.P.:While watching you perform I actually turned to the wife and said, “How is a guy like Jonathan Mayer making millions and playing Madison Square Garden and a guy like Eric Kufs playing the farmer’s market?” And, Eric, I don’t mean that as an insult to either of you. You’re both excellent. But have you figured out the music business at all? Like, what it takes to be rich and famous and secure? And is that even your ultimate goal?
E.K.: Jon Mayer wrote a lot of accessible pop songs. Combined with his great guitar playing and boyish look a record company had very little trouble selling him as a product to a wide range of people, young and old.
I never had aspirations to write that kind of music and I’ve always stayed true to my own sensibilities and interests as an artist. This fact and my deficiency in the art of self-promotion have made it difficult to attain that level of financial success. That said, within those parameters I always felt like there was room for success in one way or another. The music business is wide open. It only takes one song to be a hit on YouTube or wherever and this can lead you to something like a career. As in anything there’s always a bit of timing and luck involved.
J.P.: I know you’re from East Meadow, N.Y., I know you live in LA. But what’s your musical path? Like, birth to now, how did you get here? First instrument? First musical love?
E.K.: After playing New York City clubs for a few years in my teens, I came out to Los Angeles with my band from high school, Common Rotation. We lived in a house in LA not far from where I live now and recorded an album with the band They Might Be Giants. We toured for a few years with them promoting that album. The band evolved from a more pop rock type outfit into a folkier indie singer/songwriter group. After a while we began to record with acts like the Indigo Girls and Dan Bern.
When the band wasn’t touring, I started street performing as I mentioned before. This eventually led to me performing more often as a solo act. Common Rotation are my best friends from when I was a kid and we do shows when we can but right now we’re all happily supporting each other’s projects.
Currently I have two records I am recording with different producers. Both should be finished by the end of this year or early 2016. One will be a full-on soul band arrangement of tunes and the other will be a more acoustic Americana tinged album with a collection of short stories.
J.P.:In 2005, you released an album of original songs recorded on the streets of Santa Monica. Um … how does one record songs on the streets on Santa Monica? Like, literally …
E.K.: My old friend Brian Speiser, producer of many Common Rotation records and currently the sound engineer for Tedeschi/Trucks band, rented some microphones and we used a laptop and a portable pre/amp. He followed me around Santa Monica as I played folksy Woody Guthrie type originals.
I have to make that available online someday.
J.P.: I love this shit—you have a 2004 IMDB credit for playing “Guy in Cafeteria” in the TV series, “The Jury.” OK, Eric, do tell what happened, what you remember, how you landed the part. And what was your theatrical motivation behind, “Guy in Cafeteria”?
E.K.: My friend Adam Busch from Common Rotation was an actor on the show and he got me the gig. My motivation was something like … “Don’t fuck this up, don’t drop the lunch tray.”
J.P.:Greatest moment of your musical career? Lowest?
E.K.: Years ago I traveled to the upper Yukon in the dead of winter to play for two Eskimo fishing villages. In school gym we led the entire village in a sing-along of “All I Have to Do is Dream” by The Everly Brothers.
The lowest? Any time I play in Costa Mesa. It all blurs into one bad experience.
J.P.:Eric, random question—I’ve lived in Southern California for a year, and I’m freaking out the state is going to go completely dry. Nobody around me in the OC seems to give a shit. Do I need to chill? And what the hell is wrong with people?
E.K.: No please don’t chill. Keep freaking out. Someone should. I think there’s a denial being fueled by the hopeless reality of this frightening situation. Pray for rain. Pray for rain.
J.P.:So … you’re also a member of Common Rotation, a band you’ve been with for many years. Two questions—how have you guys survived for so long, and what can you tell me about covering a Twisted Sister tune?
E.K.: We don’t live together anymore and we don’t do long tours so that helps us keep working together. Twisted Sister: Classic Long Island band. Strong Island represent, word. “We’re Not Gonna Take It”: It’s a protest song.
• How do you feel about American Idol and The Voice?: I don’t like Karaoke contests. I think music and art competitions are not in anyone’s interest accept for those who profit most from them which are not usually the artists.
• Where’s somewhere cool in LA I need to take my wife for a night out?:Bestia … great food. Orange Creamsicle cake
• I have an ongoing debate with my friend—who has a better voice, Daryl Hall or Johnny Gill?: Daryl Hall was great but I think Johnny Gill’s is holding up better.
• One question you would ask Emmanuel Lewis were he here right now?: What was it like to meet Ronald Reagan?
• Why did you stop blogging? You’re an excellent writer.: I’m in grad school. Takes up a lot of writing time. Also I’ve been writing short stories for new album. People prefer Tweets anyway … but I’m terrible at that type of writing.