Q & A: Alan Alda: “I would say study improvising because that gets to the heart of acting”

Alan Alda talks 30 Rock, M*A*S*H, acting and the near death experience that changed his life.

I rarely get nervous when I talk to an actor in these Q & A sessions but this one was different.

Alan Alda has won 5 Emmy Awards and 6 Golden Globes. He’s conquered television (M*A*S*H, The West Wing), stage (Glengarry Glen Ross) and film (The Four Seasons, Sweet Liberty, The Aviator). He’s a director and writer.

He’s done everything and he’s done it with a masters hand.

Now you know why I was nervous.

I got the opportunity to talk with Alan in about his guest starring role as Jack’s dad on 30 Rock. This is his 3rd appearance on the show and he talked to us about working with Alec Baldwin, M*A*S*H, acting and his near death experience that changed his life.

M*A*S*H was a phenomenal success. How do you compare that with being on 30 Rock?

Alan Alda: You know, it’s very interesting. When I first went on 30 Rock — and this is now the third time I’ve been on the show — I had the same feeling about the group there that I had when we were doing M*A*S*H.

It’s a very collaborative company. Everybody knows where they’re going and what they’re doing. And they all are supportive of one another. They all recognize one another’s unique personalities. And they work with them. They play with them. They work around them. They’re very tuned into one another. Just the same way we were. And it’s very nice to see that’s. It’s a pleasure to see that.

I understand that you had a near death experience that had a profound effect on your life. Can you tell us about it and how this experienced has guided your life today?

Alan Alda: Well almost exactly seven years ago — it was October 19 seven years ago — I was in Chile and I was doing my science show there about scientific American frontiers.

And it was the last interview of the tenth season. And it was the very last interview I would do until the following year. And I was on top of a mountain in Chile talking to astronomers.

And I got this pain in my stomach and it turned out to be a blocked intestine. It was about a yard of my intestine that had to be taken out in the middle of the night in an emergency operation. And I did nearly die. It came within a couple of hours of checking out I think.

And when I – when the operation was over and I realized that I had survived it really did make a tremendous impression on me. I was glad to be alive in a way I never had been before.

And it stuck with me. It still sticks with me. And no matter how tough things get I think that’s not so bad. This isn’t so bad because I was supposed to be dead by now. And, you know, I’ve had seven years of a wonderful life that was extra, that was a bonus.

When I get a chance to do something new, something interesting, something that I had never done before like write a couple of books, like being on 30 Rock, and share that experience with people who were pushing the frontier a little bit it’s very exciting to me.

And I realize it that it’s something that I wouldn’t have had. I mean, and that includes, you know, by comparison the things I just mentioned are trivial compared to seeing my grandchildren grow up and seeing my daughters mature and become, you know, who they were destined to be from the time they were little girls. But I might not have seen that.

So it has changed my life and I enjoy things a lot more. I enjoy – I even enjoy complaining more.

Since you’ve already played Milton how do you connect or relate to him now as compared to your first guest spot?

Alan Alda: Well, you know, what’s nice is every time a character shows up — we had this on M*A*S*H too and when I would write for the characters on M*A*S*H I would look for this — what else can you find out about the person.

And as I – sometimes very little things. You know, he’s especially affectionate towards his son who is played by Alec Baldwin of course. And it irritates Alec, you know, for this guy to be so affectionate toward him.

But when you see little turns and twists on that – other ways he can be irritating to him it’s fun to discover those things. So it’s a really a process of seeing a little deeper each time into the person.

Given who you were before you started in the industry and all the great roles you’ve had since what have you learned about yourself that you may not have if you weren’t an actor?

Alan Alda: That’s an interesting question. Let’s see what have I learned that if I hadn’t been an actor I wouldn’t have learned. I think it’s very possible that I wouldn’t have learned – well probably a number of things but one of the things I probably wouldn’t have learned was to get in touch with my emotions the way I have to because it’s my professional obligation to.

And there are an awful lot of people who don’t have to and don’t get in touch with their emotions. And I guess those are the ones with children who grow up saying their father was cold and that kind of thing. So that’s one thing.

Another thing is I don’t think I wouldn’t have gotten up so early every morning because for some reason they start – when you’re in front of a camera they start the acting day at 8:00 in the morning. If I just stayed on the stage I could’ve gotten up at noon because, you know, you start a lot later.

But there’s also this thing of acting out on the sidewalk in the bitter cold. And the only other time I had to do that when I was a door man before I could get very far in acting. So it’s not that different. You have some of the same benefits you have as being a door man.

Would you like to do another comedy series? Is that something you’d like to do or do you want to stick to guest spots?

Alan Alda: I like coming in and out of 30 Rock. So the more I can do that the happier I’ll be. For one thing I don’t have to travel too far, just cross the river into Queens.

I know you wrote and directed many episodes of M*A*S*H – some of the best ones in fact, but does the prospect of directing say a show like 30 Rock and the pace at which it moves give you a chill or would you ever want to tackle that?

Alan Alda: No I don’t think so. It makes me very happy now when a director has to worry about where to put the camera and how to organize a shot and to get the day in before everybody has to go home. And it’s not me who has to worry about it. It’s just one of the extra pleasures in life not to have to worry about those things.

It’s interesting, so many people want to be directors. You know, there’s an old joke that somebody is meeting Mother Teresa and telling her how wonderful she is. And she says yeah but you know what I really want to do is direct.

And – I mean, it’s because everyone wants to. But I did that already. I did it on M*A*S*H. I did it in several movies that I wrote and directed. And for the experience itself I don’t really need to do it any more.

And I don’t need that feeling of power. There is a feeling of – a wonderful feeling of power when you’re a director especially on a big movie, less so on a television show.

But you can say I’d really like that building painted yellow. And the next day it’s yellow. Or you say I’d like to have it moved over there. And it’s gone. You know, so that feels pretty good. But I don’t think I need that and I’m okay without it. So no I’m very happy to just play, you know, on 30 Rock and in movies and that kind of thing.

What advice would you give to actors?

Alan Alda: Make sure it’s the only thing in your life that you can do. Make sure you have plenty of other interests so that when you’re waiting to get work your life will be satisfying. And if you never get work you’ll have something else to go to that you have a passion for.

Make sure you have a spouse or a partner who shares your values because that may be the only person you’ll ever meet who shares your values. And I would say study improvising because that gets to the heart of acting which is connecting with the other people.

You’ve stayed pretty East Coast centric in your career. Was not living in Los Angeles a detriment to you? For getting roles or work for you in acting?

Alan Alda: No I always – for a long time we lived out there about half the year and then when we had grandchildren that got to be hard to do and we lived there less and less. But we always had a home in the East partly because our children were growing up here and we didn’t want to make the move.

How did you first get involved with 30 Rock?

Alan Alda: They called me up and they asked me if I wanted to be Alec Baldwin’s father. And I was delighted. You know, it’s very funny to – it’s a funny feeling to work with people who you consider your colleagues and to realize that they actually are young enough to be your children.

Alec and Tina and pretty much everybody on the set could be, you know, is young enough to be a child of mine. And yet I’m – there’s no sense on my part that I’m any older than them.

I mean, I look at Alec and I think in some way well we’re sort of the same age. We have a wealth of experience that we share. And then I think wait a minute. I have daughters the same age. You know, so it’s kind of – it’s funny when I step back and reflect on it.

30 RockIt’s amazing to see you play with Elaine Stritch. Have you enjoyed it as well?

Alan Alda: Oh yeah. You know, she’s remarkable. When we were shooting this episode, she was coming in and shooting for a full day which is tiring for anybody. And then she was going out at night and leaving the set and going to do a Broadway musical — A Little Night Music — which is – to do a musical takes a tremendous amount of energy because you have to act and sing at the same time.

And everything has to be precise. Because you can’t forget the lyrics because the band keeps playing, you know, and you’re under a certain amount of pressure. And she was doing two full time jobs at the same time. And it takes – I was really – I admired her energy very much.

Do you have any plans to return to the stage and do more musicals?

Alan Alda: I don’t have any plans. Musicals are hard for me because I got thrown out of the glee club in high school because I couldn’t sing in tune at the time. I can sing in tune now but I have to work really hard on it to make sure that I don’t exercise one of my great talents which is the ability to sing in three keys at the same time.

I mean, when I work on it I can do it but it’s a little scary. But then I like to do scary things. So, I mean, eventually I may do it. But I’m not so sure I want to show up eight times a week. That’s why I admire Elaine Stritch so much that she really digs in and gives her all to it.

But you know how politicians are always saying they want to spend more time with their family? Well I actually do.

You said you don’t watch TV too much but excluding Jack Donaghy which character currently on TV today do you actually enjoy watching the most?

Alan Alda: I love what’s his name on Curb Your Enthusiasm. Larry David? I think he’s really created a character that’s so risky. I mean, it’s amazing that you can enjoy watching that schmuck week in and week out. I mean, but he’s so offbeat and off base that it’s delicious to see the mistakes he makes.

They do it without much prep work because a lot of it is improv. Is that something that you would do one day?

Alan Alda: Oh I would love it. I love to improvise. And I started out as an improviser. And I was always suggesting on the M*A*S*H set that we do a little bit of improvising. We never did. You know, a lot of people asked us did we improvise much. We didn’t improvise a smidgen. Every work was as written.

But we did one episode that was improvised. And it was one of our special ones which was the interview show – one of the black and white interview shows where we improvised a lot of the – most of the speeches that were then organized and punched up by Larry Gelbart.

And then there were moments that were improvised on the spot where the interviewer was just asking us questions on camera that we had never heard before and we’d answer in character. So that was really a lot of fun.

I see movies now where improvisation is used much more than it ever has been before. And those movies tend to be really interesting in terms of the performances because they’re much more spontaneous.

You talked a little bit about your time on the 30 Rock set and I was wondering what it was like for you to formulate this character. When you were there on set working with Alec and Elaine did you start to think of some other ideas to bring to the table?

Alan Alda: No. I do what they say. You know, what’s in the script is what I do. And they’re really – you know, that writing is very, very carefully worked out. And there were a lot of people working on those scripts.

We did a table reading of this show and we were at a – usually you’re at a table and there are, you know, six or seven writers there. I don’t know who all these people were. There was a roomful of about 50 people and they were all involved in creating the show. So it was like an audience. It was like you did an off-Broadway play that morning.

And it was really exciting to do that because you got live reactions to the humor. And it sparked everybody into another level of energy – the actors. It was a very interesting experience. It was a table read of a kind I hadn’t been to before because there were so many people involved. So I really enjoyed that.

In answer to your question I get – what I find to do I find in the script. And, you know, I examine the script to try to see what veins are there to be explored.

But I don’t – just because I write and I direct I don’t – that doesn’t mean I offer suggestions in those areas when I go to work with other people. They have their own inspiration and I try to serve that.

In terms of just working with Alec, you guys have incredible chemistry together. Is that something that kind of came together naturally?

Alan Alda: Yeah Alec and I know each other off camera a little bit and, you know, bump into each other time to time. And I think professionally and personally we both enjoy one another and one another’s company. And I think we respect one another as actors.

It is fun to play opposite somebody when you have that going for you. There’s an extra charge. You know, it’s like those machines – in the old fashioned movies where that giant spark goes from one pole to another.

That’s what happens when you’re playing with another actor that you really enjoy both as an actor and as a person. And I think we both have that.

I know you’re obviously a really good multi-tasker since you’ve acted, wrote and directed M*A*S*H often at the same time. What’s your secret to having such creative bursts of energy and being able to multi-task like that.

Alan Alda: You know, the only way I could do it and I actually – while I was doing M*A*S*H I did two or three pilots plus We’ll Get By. And then right after M*A*S*H I did a short series based on the Four Seasons.

And I was doing a lot of this stuff at the same time. In fact while I was doing the series for Four Seasons both my parents were dying. And I was – I would be writing the show while I was being driven in cars back and forth to hospitals.

And that was an example of pressure you can’t – you really don’t know you’re going to get. This pressure just comes at you sometimes and you can’t prepare against it.

But the only way I could deal with it was to do what I was doing when I was doing it and not think about the other deadlines that were still hanging over my head from all the other things I was doing.

So if I was going to spend 15 minutes on one of those tasks whether it was being at my mother’s bedside or acting a scene when I knew I had to come up with a written scene two hours after that I wouldn’t think about anything but what I was doing at the time.

And that’s kind of a good – it’s kind of good training for the rest of your life even if you’re not having to multi-task because whatever you’re doing deserves the attention you have.

Do you ever see a little bit of yourself in Tina Fey?

Alan Alda: What amazes me – I don’t know how she does it because she has a young child – I think one. And that’s a full time job.

And then she’s got writing and producing and acting. Acting is a full time job. It amazes me because she doesn’t look as exhausted as I used to look. So I really don’t – I’m filled with admiration for her.

And she’s doing at least as much as I did when I was doing M*A*S*H. So I don’t know how she does it.

Is there anything you consciously do to step aside from your role of Hawkeye? Because you’ve never been type cast.

Alan Alda: Well, you know, I think you’re right. I don’t think I have been type cast. I think maybe one of the reasons why is that while I was doing M*A*S*H I was able to play other characters in movies. And so I sort of registered as an actor and not as that character.

But I don’t consciously try to be different. I just try to play the character. You know, every character is a little different. And I don’t even – it doesn’t bother me if a character is a little like another character I played as long as I can try sincerely to be fully who that person is.

Do you have an idea the impact you’ve had on pop culture? Your show M*A*S*H – what it has done. It’s become such a hit that will be remembered for hundreds of years. Do you not think about it?

Alan Alda: Never think about it. I’m sort of aware of it but not – I don’t think in any way the way you’re describing it. And I have to tell you when we were in the midst of doing it we really had no idea of the impact we were having.

Because we were just working as hard as we could to do good shows. Or as Jack Benny once said he said I try never to do a lousy show. And that’s actually a pretty good standard.

But people – in the beginning we were shocked that people would come up to us in airports and say – and they’d whisper keep up the good work like we were part of some kind of an underground movement.

And the night that the show ended and we drove through the streets and saw that the streets were empty because everybody was home – about half the country, half the population of the country was watching the show at the same time. And it was a shock to us. We really didn’t understand until that moment what kind of an impact the program had. Which is good because otherwise you’d get a little stiff, you know. You’d get a little self-important.

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