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So What Do You Do, James Lipton, Creator and Host of Inside the Actor's Studio?

'I've never thought ever, ever of stopping for any reason.'

By Amanda Ernst - April 4, 2012
As the serious, uber-prepared host of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio, James Lipton is famous for his tower of blue index cards and his ability to turn our favorite actors into sobbing piles of mush. But Lipton is more than your average TV talk show host. He's also an actor, director, producer, choreographer, playwright, author and founder of the Actor's Studio Drama School, the largest graduate drama program in the country.

And, with 14 Emmy nominations already under his belt, the man who called Norman Mailer and Marlon Brando good friends says he has no plans to relinquish his interview chair anytime soon. In fact, he's switching things up. The 18th season of Inside will feature the ensemble casts of some of his favorite TV shows, with the cast of Glee up first on April 9 at 8pm. "You'll have to watch," he teased when asked about any standout moments from the episode. "You'll see some dancing; I'll tell you that."


Name: James Lipton
Position: Creator, executive producer, host and writer of Inside the Actor's Studio and dean emeritus of The Actor Studio Drama School at Pace University
Resume: Began acting at a young age, most memorably playing the Lone Ranger's nephew. Worked as an actor on Broadway, in film and on television; produced and wrote for television; wrote book and lyrics for two musicals, Nowhere to Go but Up and Sherry!; wrote the novel Mirrors, which he also adapted for TV, the non-fiction book An Exaltation of Larks and Inside Inside, a memoir and backstage look at the Bravo hit. Founded the Actor's Studio Drama School and launched Inside the Actor's Studio.
Birthday: September 19
Hometown: Detroit
Education: Wayne State University, then 12 years of acting, modern dance and voice study
Marital status: Married to Kedakai Turner Lipton, a vice president of the Corcoran Real Estate and the model for Miss Scarlett on the original game of Clue's box and cards
Media Idol: French talk show host Bernard Pivot, who Lipton famously cribs his Inside questionnaire from and modeled his own interviewing style on. "He was the person I wanted to be like. I've never succeeded, but I've come as close as I could."
Favorite TV shows: Inside the Actor's Studio, Arrested Development, Glee, Modern Family, Mad Men
Guilty pleasure: Show jumping horses and flying airplanes
Last book read: Stephen Sondheim's Finishing the Hat and Look, I Made a Hat


When you were younger you wanted to be a lawyer. How did you end up on this career path instead?
Even when I was in high school, I was working as an actor because it was the easiest way to earn some extra money and I had enough time to do my homework... Then when I moved out to New York, I was going to go to continue my education in the law. That was always the intention; I was going to be a lawyer. But I had to work as well, you see, and so I looked around me and I saw that the [acting] track was pretty fast. And I thought that if I was going to work in New York as an actor I should study some of that at least. Otherwise, I'd be unemployed and I'd starve to death and terrible things would happen.

"The students would stay all night. I literally threw [the cast of] Mad Men and Glee out of there in the middle of the night."

So I began to study. I started studying with Stella Adler, who was one of the most famous teachers of the Stanislavsky system in New York. I realized after about a year with Stella that this was really what I wanted to do. And that began 12 years -- and I'm not joking or exaggerating -- of study. I studied two and half years with Stella Adler, four years with Harold Clurman, the founder of the Group Theatre, two years with Robert Lewis, also of the Group Theatre. I started studying voice; I studied almost up to the operatic level. I studied dance and became enamored of that. I studied modern dance. I studied classical ballet to the point where I actually choreographed a ballet for Ballet Theater. This was an extraordinary time of my life.

When you first started working with the Actor's Studio, what was your role?
I was a director. I was invited by Norman Mailer and his wife, Norris Church, both now sadly deceased. And at that time -- this was about 20 years ago -- many cultural institutions were in dire straits, as cultural institutions frequently are. And we were looking for ways to somehow support the studio, and I said to myself, why does the studio not have a school? And I went to the president of the New School... and I said, "What if I was able to provide you with a major drama school? What if I could get my colleagues to create...a degree-granting program?" Then he said, "Where do I sign?"... I had no intention of staying with it. I was just doing it on behalf of the studio.

When did you develop the show, Inside the Actor's Studio?
At the same time. We were accredited very quickly, which we hadn't expected. Suddenly, there we were and I thought, we'll do a master class, a seminar, because I had people who would teach. All of our core classes are taught by members of the Actor's Studio, life members, and I had stars like Ellen Burstyn and Arthur Penn and people like that who would come and teach a six-week course, and that was all they could give us because they were working very hard.

And then I had people like Paul Newman who wouldn't do that, so I sent a letter to a bunch of them and asked if they could give me one night. Can you give me one night for a master class and I'll conduct an interview? Paul Newman said yes, Dennis Hopper said yes, Sally Field said yes, and that was just as we were starting, in the weeks before we opened our doors. So I sent word back to television people, where I had worked as a producer and writer and actor, and I said, "I see something worth preserving. Is anyone interested?" And Bravo, to its eternal credit, said yes. And so we began the school and these master classes at the same time, in the fall of 1994.

What determines who you invite on the show?
It's very simple. I ask myself one question: Does this person have something to teach our students? That is the criteria. And it's worked very well for us. And I thought we would stick to craft, no gossip, no nonsense like that, not like other talk shows... What I didn't realize is that if I were to ask you about the turning points in your life, about whatever lead you to wherever you are now, who are the people and what are the moments and the events that shaped you... as a person, you would find the same thing as everybody on the show: that the most painful moments are often the most emotional. And that's why we've kept the reputation of reducing our guests to tears but I didn't expect that; it wasn't something I had anticipated. Bradley Cooper couldn't stop crying for the whole time we were on our stage. He was trained by us; he's a graduate of our school.

"The most painful moments are often the most emotional. That's why we've kept the reputation of reducing our guests to tears."

The other fateful decision I made is that there would be no pre-interview. None. It's the only talk show in America that has absolutely never had a pre-interview and never will. That forces us into a conversation, and the guest doesn’t know what's coming next, and I have to spend two weeks, 12 hours a day, preparing for it because no one is out there doing a pre-interview. Nothing is handed to me. I get raw material from my researcher... and then I watch all the movies, read everything that the person has written about himself or herself, and I go through all the articles that have been written about them, and from that I distill the blue cards, which are approximately 300-500 [cards] for each person. And then they come to me and they're on stage with me for three and a half to four hours, up to five or six hours, because it's a class. The students would stay all night. I literally threw [the cast of] Mad Men and Glee out of there in the middle of the night.

There are a few commonalities that you have found in the people you've interviewed over the years, like coming from divorced families.
That is the dominant theme.

Are there others you've found in your years interviewing actors?
Shyness. Many of them are shy, were shy as children and are shy to this day. So shyness is one. These are things you would not expect. Most people think they're all supremely confident, because once they step in front of a camera or on stage they are. But the reason that they are is that they are overcoming something always, and that something is usually shyness. Very often one of the motivating factors is a loss of a parent, either from death or through divorce where it happens at an early age where something in them says "I'm going to show you; you're going to see." And so the drive begins.

Have you ever been completely caught off guard by someone's answer?
Oh, frequently. Those are some of the best moments. I've done my cards and I'm expecting a certain answer, and it goes off in a random direction and that's when we find ourselves galloping off together. I've compared it to a high wire in the circus. We come out on stage, there are our students out front, I go up one rope ladder on one side of the stage, and the guest goes up the other, and we meet on a high wire after three or four or five hours.

Have you ever asked someone to come on the show and they've refused?
Sometimes they can't come because of their schedules. The only person who ever absolutely refused was Marlon Brando, because by the time I started the show -- although he was a member of the Actor's Studio and had been trained by Stella Adler as I was; we knew each other, and we used to talk on the phone for hours at a time -- but by that time he was already reclusive. I couldn't get him out of the house and neither could anyone else.

You've been doing the show for 18 seasons now. How much longer do you think you can keep up the 12-hour days seven days a week?
For as long as I live. I love it so. It's very much a part of my life, and I think I'm very much a part of its life, and I've never thought ever, ever of stopping for any reason ever. We're already starting to cast next season.

NEXT >> AvantGuildSo What Do You Do, Wendy Williams, Host of The Wendy Williams Show


Amanda Ernst is a freelance writer living in New York. She also manages business development and social media marketing for B5 Media, the publisher of five women's lifestyle sites.

© WebMediaBrands Inc. 2012. All Rights Reserved.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.



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