'Improvised Life': Arkin's Memoir About Making It Up Ever since he was 5, Academy Award winner Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor. When he started performing with Chicago's Second City troupe, he fell in love with improvisation. His new memoir, An Improvised Life, describes how he has made it all up along the way.
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'Improvised Life': Arkin's Memoir About Making It Up

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'Improvised Life': Arkin's Memoir About Making It Up

'Improvised Life': Arkin's Memoir About Making It Up

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in Washington. Neal Conan is away.

From the age of five, Alan Arkin knew he was going to be an actor. He grew up a film junkie, and he spent a lot of time, as he puts it, pretending to be a human being.

Arkin struggled to find his feet as an actor. He did stints in acting school. He toured Europe with a folk band. He spent a year playing the lute in an off-Broadway play.

The turning point came in Chicago with the Second City comedy troupe. That's where Arkin learned the power of improvisation. This led to roles in dozens of films, like "Little Miss Sunshine," for which he won an Academy Award.

(Soundbite of movie, "Little Miss Sunshine")

Ms. ABIGAIL BRESLIN (Actor): (As Olive Hoover) I don't want to be a loser.

Mr. ALAN ARKIN (Actor): (As Grandpa Edwin Hoover) You're not a loser. Where'd you get the idea you're a loser?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive Hoover) Because daddy hates losers.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Grandpa Edwin Hoover) Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Back up a minute. You know what a loser is? A real loser is somebody that's so afraid of not winning, they don't even try. Now, you're trying, right?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive Hoover) Yeah.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Grandpa Edwin Hoover) Then you're not a loser. We're going to have fun tomorrow, right?

Ms. BRESLIN: (As Olive Hoover) Yeah.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Grandpa Edwin Hoover) We can tell them all to go to hell. Good night, sweetie, I love you.

KELLY: Alan Arkin. His new book is called "An Improvised Life: A Memoir." In it, he writes about the highs and the lows of the acting life and life in general, and how his acting has informed his life.

Well, we'd love to hear from the actors out there listening. What have you learned on the stage or on the set that served you in real life? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And Alan Arkin, welcome to the program.

Mr. ARKIN: Thanks, Mary Louise.

KELLY: We're glad to have you. You're out at member station KANW in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We appreciate your being there. And I want to start by asking you about this point that you describe as the turning point in your acting career, the real start of your professional life.

You'd gotten an offer to come act at this little hole-in-the-wall theater in Chicago, and that little hole-in-the-wall theater was named Second City. Why'd you take the job?

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, well, at the time, nobody had ever heard of it, because it didn't exist. I was in the first company, and they were just putting together a company. And they had offered me the job about a year before, and I turned it down. I said: Fat chance I'm going to bury myself at a hole in the wall in Chicago. That would be the end of my career.

And I starved for yet another year in New York without being able to get any kind of work at all. And then I looked for the number that this man had given me, and I called him up, and I said to him, I said: I'm willing to take the job, if it's still an offer. And he said yes.

So I - with my heart in my mouth, thinking that my life was over, I went to Chicago and lived in a 10-by-10 room with a bathroom down the hall for six months. And I was happier than I'd ever been. The minute I got there, I realized that I'd found a home. It was just an extraordinary couple of years with them.

KELLY: Now, had you done improv before?

Mr. ARKIN: I did it for a summer in St. Louis with a pick-up company, and I don't think I was terribly good at it. But I guess he saw something in me and felt that I would work with the company.

KELLY: You have a great - yeah, go ahead.

Mr. ARKIN: When I got to Second City, I was terrible for a couple of months. I thought I was going to get fired, and if I got fired, I didn't know where I would go or what I would do.

So I started looking at waiters longingly and trying to see...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: Wishing for the relative job security of the waiter.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, right. But after a couple of months, I found a character that worked, and I just hung onto him like a life preserver, and then started finding a library of characters that worked. And so it worked out.

KELLY: You talk in the book about how one of the great things about that experience for you in Chicago was that, with improv, some nights it works, some nights it totally bombs, and how liberating that was.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, no, it was never a night that it didn't work. It was just that parts of every night didn't work. And the audience came there knowing that part of every evening was not going to work because it's improvisation, and some are terrific, some are terrible.

And they knew that if one didn't work, the next one might be sensational. And it was - the ability to fail was an extraordinary privilege and gift, because it doesn't happen much in this country, anywhere. It's - everybody's looking at the bottom line all the time, and failure doesn't look good on the bottom line, and yet you don't learn anything without failing.

KELLY: Huh. The ability to fail. That's interesting. And is that something you carried through as your acting career progressed?

Mr. ARKIN: Yes, I looked forward to failure whenever I had the opportunity.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARKIN: And I have done so many, many times since.

KELLY: There you go. Well, you write compellingly about how terrifying it was some nights behind the curtain there, as the audience had thrown out ideas, and you had just a few minutes before you had to go back on the stage and actually do something with those ideas.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah. We had 15 minutes every night to go and figure out what the next 45 minutes of theater was going to be. And nobody sat down. There was a lot of smoking and pacing.

KELLY: Well, it did work out for you. You ended up going with Second City to New York. You ended up parlaying that into some great roles on and off Broadway. But I was so interested to read you ended up deciding you weren't as crazy about acting on the stage. How come?

Mr. ARKIN: No, I didn't - I had two - I was in two hits back to back, and they ended up being torture.

KELLY: Really?

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, well, for a lot of reasons. First of all, you're not encouraged to experiment or play very much because the - the play gets set the minute the opening night is there, and that's - you're supposed to do exactly that for the next year.

And I just am constitutionally unable to just find any kind of excitement or creativity in that kind of experience. So that was half of it.

The other half of it was that the anonymity of Second City was wonderful. I used to hide behind characters all the time. And when I was on Broadway with my first show, they put my name above the title, and people would be coming, at least in part, to see me.

And I'd walk on stage and get a hand, and it threw me completely because I could no longer hide. I could no longer hide behind the characters. So that was another psychotic issue for me.

KELLY: Huh. And you actually went for many years without performing live on stage in the theater.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, I went about 30 years. I wrote a play by accident about 10 years ago. And it got put on with a one-act with Elaine May, her daughter and my son, Tony. And I thought I maybe had beaten that dislike. But after about a month, they had to push me onstage every night. And I realized then that that was the last time I was ever going to try it.

KELLY: Well, and you said you wrote the play by accident. How does that work?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, the way it worked was I had never thought of myself as a playwright, never wanted to write a play, and my - a friend of mine bought a - wanted to write a play and bought a computer program - I don't know, it facilitated it more easily.

And she didn't know how to use the program. So I said, give it to me. I'll play with it for a few days and see if I can come up with anything. So I played with it, and I ended up playing with it for a little longer than I thought I would. And at the end of the week or so, I looked down, and I said: Hey, I think I wrote a play here.

And I read it over a couple of times and realized that I had written a long, one-act play without an ending. And I spent the next couple of weeks trying to figure out what I meant by it, so that I could write an ending for it.

And then I did a reading of it with my son for a bunch of friends, one of whom was a producer, and he liked it enough to want to do it as an evening, if Elaine May would write a companion piece.

And she did. She liked it, too, and she wrote a companion piece. And there we were on a theater on Broadway, doing two plays, one of which was done by accident.

KELLY: Huh. That's fascinating. Well, it's worked out well for you that, despite deciding that you really don't love the theater after all that, you found a great career on the other side.

Mr. ARKIN: I don't mind watching plays once in a while, but as long as I don't have to be in them.

KELLY: As long as you don't have to be in them. When did you first get that call? Where were you in your career when you got a call to come for a screen test?

Mr. ARKIN: I was in the middle of a play on Broadway with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, directed by - called "Luv," directed by Mike Nichols.

And I got a call from Norman Jewison, who liked my work well enough to want to give me a screen test for a part in his movie "The Russians are Coming." And I said I would only do it if I could improvise it.

And he said okay. So we did an improvisation, a long improvisation, with him behind the camera and me in front of it, and I got the part.

KELLY: And in your memoir, you write that you got that part, and once you started, film felt like the medium I'd been waiting for. Why?

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah. Well, it was - well, partly because it kept me off the stage.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARKIN: And improv - not only was improv part of my lexicon of things that I could do, but Norman kind of encouraged it, even in the first film I had ever done, because I was so green that I thought you have to keep talking until they shout cut.

And I'd get through the scene, and I didn't hear the word cut. So I would just keep going. And Norman used some of the things that I guess I ad-libbed in the film, he ended up using several of the things in the film.

KELLY: The hard lessons you learn when you're starting down a new career path.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah.

KELLY: Yeah. Have you carried on doing that, or do you now...

Mr. ARKIN: Improvising?

KELLY: Yeah. Well, do you listen for cut now?

Mr. ARKIN: No. These days, if a scene comes to an end, I just stop. I'm more comfortable on screen than I was back then, 45 years ago.

KELLY: Then you have carried on improvising.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah. I don't like improvising on camera, particularly, but very often, a scene will not be working, and you rehearse it once or twice, and you realize something's missing. So I'll play with it until it makes sense.

I find that a lot of screenwriting now is not written by writers so much as architects and draftsmen. They understand the plot, and the movies track very well. But I think a lot of times, language suffers. And if I have a chance of enhancing what I feel the language to be, then I'll jump in - I will not do it at the expense of confusing or surprising anybody else, but - and I will always check with the director beforehand. But I like playing with things, unless they're wonderfully written by a writer and not a draftsman.

KELLY: We're talking today with Academy Award-winner Alan Arkin. His new book is "An Improvised Life," and we're going to talk with him some more after the break about some of the other actors he's worked with and some of the lessons he's learned from that.

I'm Mary Louise Kelly. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Mary Louise Kelly, in Washington. Neal Conan's away.

In his new memoir, "An Improvised Life," actor Alan Arkin writes about the ways his craft changed his life, and vice versa. Early in his career, he focused intensely on each scene, hoping to head off some stern and faceless judge, he writes, whose condemnation he feared.

It was not a particularly happy place to work from, Alan Arkin concludes. And that focus meant he put parts of his personal life on the backburner. But once he decided to work on the personal side, suddenly the work of acting became fun.

You can read more about his early days as an actor in an excerpt at our website. Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And today, we would love to hear from the actors out there listening. What have you learned on stage or on set that has served you in real life? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. You can also email us. We're at talk@npr.org.

And we do have lots of calls coming in, wanting to speak with Alan Arkin. Let me turn first to Joe in Bowling Green, Ohio.

Hi, Joe.

JOE (Caller): Hi. How are you doing this afternoon?

KELLY: We're great, thank you. Thanks for calling.

JOE: My experience - I acted in high school, and tragically, it's something I don't get to do anymore. But I had two wonderful directors, Father Turina(ph) and Mr. Malone(ph). And they always said that part of ourselves had to be part of the characters that we played, and that the character had to come from a real place.

And those lessons kind of got lost after high school. And then as a second career, I became a high school teacher at age 29. And as I struggled through that first, crazy year of teaching, I realized: I need a character here.

And I sort of created this very real character of Mr. B, who I still play in the classroom every day. And I just - I wonder from Mr. Arkin: Do you find that you have a character that you play in certain situations in your, quote-unquote, "real life?"

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, I do it for fun now. If I see - if I'm out in the world, and I see a waiter at a restaurant or somebody in that check-out line who's bored and disgruntled, I like to crack them up. I like to find a way of breaking through their routine.

And I don't have a specific character. I like - I kind of like to play a pompous idiot until - and confuse them until the point where they just recognize that I'm joking and start laughing.

But aside from that, I've discovered myself and my own persona, and I'm so comfortable in my own skin that I don't need to play characters as much as I used to.

KELLY: All right. Thanks for that call, Joe. We appreciate it.

And Alan Arkin, I want to follow up on that, and this idea of having fun while you act. We've got a little clip of tape here. This is from one your early movies, 1979, "The In-Laws." This is a scene where you and Peter Falk are - your co-star, are dodging a barrage of bullets, and you are trying to make a getaway.

(Soundbite of movie, "The In-Laws")

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. PETER FALK (Actor): (As Vincent J. Ricardo) Where the hell are the keys?

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) Are you kidding me?

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) Out of the car.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) They must be in his pocket.

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) I'll get them.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) No.

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) I'll get them.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) I'd rather die running than be left here alone.

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) Sheldon, you don't know what you're saying.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) I can't take it anymore. The idea of you out there dead and me all alone back here with the smoke and the bullets, I can't take it.

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) Are you serious?

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) I can't take it.

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) Okay. But remember, serpentine.

Mr. ARKIN: (As Sheldon S. Kornpett) Absolutely.

Mr. FALK: (As Vincent J. Ricardo) What a guy.

(Soundbite of gunfire)

KELLY: Alan Arkin, it sounds like you two are having fun there. Were you?

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah. I - my leg by the end of the shoot was black and blue from banging on myself trying to cause enough pain to myself so that I would not laugh on camera.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, it was very hard.

KELLY: But it was so interesting to read in your memoir - I mean, a lot of what you write about becoming an actor and every single role that you took on, I mean, you sweated every single role. This is hard work.

Mr. ARKIN: Well, for me, it was. For some people, it's very easy, and I envy them. I worked - when I worked with Abigail Breslin on "Little Miss Sunshine," I was working with an eight-year-old who was a consummate pro and completely comfortable and relaxed as an adult - more than an adult would be.

And she wasn't prodded by her parents. She just had it all on her own. Her mother would ask her once in a while and say: Abigail, do you need help? No, no, no, I know how to do it. And she did. I was - she was as brilliant as anybody I've ever worked with.

So it's - yeah, for me, it was tough. I was terrified of being on stage, and I had to work very hard at a craft to get past that.

KELLY: Let me take another call. This is from someone who says he's actually worked with you on a film. This is Dan calling from Minneapolis.

Hi, Dan.

DAN (Caller): Yeah, hi. How are you?

KELLY: Great, thank you.

Mr. ARKIN: Hi, were you in "The Enforcer" - I mean "The Convincer"?

DAN: Yeah, I was the stand-in for Greg Kinnear, and I wanted to call and, number one, thank you very much for opening so many doors for me. I had been in an industry, a printing industry, my entire life and got laid off. And then last year, the first job I got was doing stand-in on "The Convincer" set.

And you and I had talked a couple of times, and the thing that I had learned - the first thing that I had learned is that it was wonderful working with somebody who was so down-to-earth. You sat with us in the house and with the art directors and at the food table and...

Mr. ARKIN: There was nowhere else to go.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAN: That's true. But I listened to you very intently, and I learned a lot. And I remember you telling me, you said: You know, you just put your nose to the grinding wheel and look for work. And that really inspired me to do the same thing. And so I wanted to thank you for that.

And also, I wanted to mention that when you do ad with your lines, in particular on "The Convincer," I remember the director's assistant leaning over to Jill Sprecher, the writer, saying: He's ad-libbing the lines. Is that okay? And then Jill said: Hey, it's Alan Arkin. It's okay. And I thought that was pretty funny.

But the thing that I'm going to take away from working with you and actually working in the industry the first time was, you know, that it's a job, and it's not an easy job. And if you really want to be successful, you have to work hard, and you still have to be down-to-earth. And I thought that you were all those things. You're just an outstanding human being. I really, really do like you.

Mr. ARKIN: Well, thank you very much. Good luck to you.

DAN: Oh, thank you, Alan.

KELLY: Thanks very much for that call, Dan. We appreciate it.

Alan Arkin, let me ask about some of the other people you've worked with over your career. You've worked with all kinds of people. One of them, Carol Burnett, is going to be here on our show in April. We're looking forward to that. Tell us what it was like to work with her. You were working together, "Chu Chu and the Philly Flash."

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah. We worked together four times, actually. She's a delight. She's an absolute delight. The first time I met her, I was going to direct her in a television special. And she came into the room, and she was an enormous star. She was much bigger than I was.

And she was nervous. She was nervous as - I felt like I was with somebody who was doing their first audition. But she was fun on the set. She was compliant. She was one of the guys. My sense is about almost all the huge stars I've worked with that they've almost invariably been just decent, hardworking people, willing to play and fool around and try things. And she was certainly one of them.

KELLY: How important has it been to you over your career to get feedback from the other actors you were working with, from the directors, and, you know, you talk about - there's an interesting moment in the book where you talk about a high school drama teacher whose comments about your ability, or lack thereof, as he saw it, still haunts you.

Mr. ARKIN: It doesn't haunt me to that extent. I mean, I remember it, but I don't feel damaged by it. I mean, after working with me for about six months, he said: You'll never be an actor. He says: You may be a comedian, but you'll never be an actor. And that hurt terribly.

In those days, teachers were authority figures - for me, anyway - and it stung. But it didn't stop me from trying.

KELLY: Yeah. Did you ever want to call him up afterwards, say, from the Oscar ceremony, and say: Look at me now?

Mr. ARKIN: I'd be amazed - I tried that a couple of times.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ARKIN: In each case, they didn't know who I was. They didn't remember who I was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KELLY: They'd moved on. We've got another caller.

Mr. ARKIN: Exactly.

KELLY: We've got another caller on the line. This is Reese, calling from Laramie, Wyoming.

Hello, Reese.

REESE (Caller): Hello. I'm a big fan of the show, big fan of Alan Arkin all the way back from - I think the first time I saw you was in "The Jerky Boys."

Mr. ARKIN: Oh, my God. We have to talk about your taste for a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REESE: I was a kid.

Mr. ARKIN: Okay.

(Soundbite of laughter)

REESE: Anyways, the thing that I learned from acting was that you can't take it personally. A field like acting, you're going to suffer a lot of rejection in trying to grow as an actor, and you have to think of it the same with life. You can't take it personally when you have a car accident or, you know, you get fired. Life is a lot like a business. And Mother Nature's not going to cut you any slack.

So that's kind of what I learned, and you've got to learn to think about it like a business and keep going forward with a positive attitude. And, yeah.

And I was also going to ask: Alan, what was it like working on "Glengarry Glen Ross," with just a litany of great actors?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, it was the hardest work I think any of us has ever had to do. On a film, you're lucky if you get a day, two days of rehearsal. With "Glengarry," we had a whole month of rehearsal, working full-time, every day. It was murder, because Mamet's language is the most difficult language I've ever had to work with, including Shakespeare.

And most of my scenes were with Ed Harris. And when other people who were working on the set and doing other scenes, Ed and I would run to our trailer and just run the scenes over and over and over and over. And until the moment of shooting, we would just be running, running and running and running in the scenes. It was very difficult to do.

But it's like - people ask me if that film was fun. I say, yeah. Well, as much as brain surgery is fun. You're happy as a surgeon when it gets over and the patient has lived, but the actual process you couldn't call fun, I don't think. And I'm very proud of it. I thought we did a -everybody, I thought, was wonderful in it.

KELLY: All right. Thanks so much. Thanks for the call, Reese.

REESE: Thank you.

KELLY: We've got emails coming in that I want to read to you, Alan Arkin, I'll let you respond. This one is from Anna Marie(ph). She's an actor in San Jose, in California. She writes: On stage, things don't always go as planned. A moment may not be perfect. But to live in that past failed moment is a disservice to the current moment. An actor is most engaging when present. And practicing this on stage has helped curb my desire to relive old wounds in day-to-day life. It becomes a very Zen thing to constantly let go.

Talk about that, about the art of letting go. Is that hard to learn?

Mr. ARKIN: Yes. It's a lifetime of hard - I've been working on that for, consciously, for over 40 years. And I think I've gotten through it in certain areas but certainly not all of them.

And there's a wonderful story about - she brings up mistakes. One of my favorite stories is the story about Arthur Rubinstein, who was my favorite pianist, who was one of the judges in a piano contest. A lot of people from all over the world were in this contest. And this one young man comes on and played brilliantly, got a standing ovation from the audience, and the other judges gave this kid something like a 95, 96. And they looked at Arthur Rubinstein's scoring form and he gave him an 84. And they were aghast. They said Arthur, how could you give - this kid was brilliant. And Rubinstein said, absolutely. He was brilliant. Says well, how can you just give him an 84? And Rubinstein said, not enough mistakes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

And he wasn't kidding. And I knew exactly what he meant by that. And I thought it was a wonderful lesson.

KELLY: We're talking with Alan Arkin here. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let me let you take one more call, Alan. This is Julian(ph) calling from Tucson, Arizona. Hi, Julian.

JULIAN (Caller): Hi. How are you?

KELLY: Great. Thank you.

Mr. ARKIN: Hello. Hi, Julian.

JULIAN: Hey, Mr. Arkin. How are you doing?

Mr. ARKIN: Good.

JULIAN: Actually, I went to Second City. I just, like, graduated about four years ago.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah.

JULIAN: And I'm good friends with Sheldon Patinkin, who has helped me out in my acting, like my career in Chicago, immensely. He's an awesome, awesome guy.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah, he is a great guy.

JULIAN: Yeah. Yeah, he is. One thing that he taught me and I think you touched on a little bit was the idea of failure.

Mr. ARKIN: Right.

JULIAN: And the idea that, I guess - I mean, as an actor, sure. But I think in life, it's just - there's like so little to live that it's so wonderful just to be able to fail at things and learn from those failures. You know what I mean?

Mr. ARKIN: Exactly. Important, it's crucial.

JULIAN: So, yeah. I mean, like, on stage - I'm sorry. Go ahead.

Mr. ARKIN: No. I was just going to - I just punctuated what you were saying.

JULIAN: Oh, yeah. Cool. Right on. Like, I don't know. It's just the idea that on stage - I also started painting because I was just - I just made myself confident writing a book just because, you know, why not? You know what I mean? Like, the only one who can tell me I can't is me, right?

Mr. ARKIN: Right.

JULIAN: So, yeah. Right on. Just failure and accepting it and respecting it. So thank you very much.

Mr. ARKIN: Yeah. Thank you.

KELLY: Thanks, Julian. Thanks.

Alan Arkin, you, in these recent years in your career, has done a lot of teaching, of acting workshops, trying to teach your craft or at least open people to the possibilities of it. Talk a little bit about what attracts you to that?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, I don't teach acting. I've been offered that place for many, many years. I never wanted to teach acting. My alma mater, which was Bennington, asked me one time if I - I guess, about 25 years ago, if I would do something. And I felt like I owed them a big debt of gratitude, so I said, yeah. And they asked me if I wanted to teach an acting class, and I didn't want to. And then, I finally thought, well, I'll do an improv workshop. We'll take a bunch of kids and I'll do an improv workshop with them. And that - and that was the first time I've ever done it. It was endlessly exciting.

I feel like most acting classes end up being directing classes, that once a person has a basic technique, which means talking and listening and doing a certain amount of analysis of the character, then what the teacher starts doing is just telling him how to play the scene. And that, to me, is mostly a director's job.

But with improvisation, you're pulling stuff out of people's own lives. You're pulling stuff out of people's own imagination and their view on life, which you never can do as an acting teacher or even as an actor. And I also found that it was tapping into people's sense of who they were as people, much more so than just acting did.

And I got excited about doing workshops. So periodically, I started doing improvisational workshops which I keep wanting to quit. But I get letters from people saying that their lives have been changed by a two-day workshop. And it's not by anything I say or do. It's by them having the freedom to explore aspects of themselves that they've been afraid to do. And it carries out into their lives a lot. And so - yeah.

KELLY: Are you still at a point where you're able to learn from those types of things?

Mr. ARKIN: From what type of things?

KELLY: From doing these workshops. Do you still learn from them?

Mr. ARKIN: Well, yeah. I learned my - what I'm still learning, more than anything else, is my own tendency to judge people, which I hate. People will come in, and I've been watching people audition for performances for - and they'll come in and in ten minutes I'll have made a judgment about what they're going to be doing within the course of the weekend. And I'm always wrong. And I just don't learn the lesson of stopping that place of judgment from rearing its head. Someday I hope to accomplish that.

KELLY: We've been talking with Alan Arkin. He's the Academy Award-winning actor, also a director and a musician. His memoir is "An Improvised Life," and there's an excerpt on our website. He has joined us from member station, KANW, in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Thanks so much, Alan Arkin.

Mr. ARKIN: Thank you.

KELLY: Up next, President Obama has backed an amendment that would give states the right to opt out of the health care law, but only if they come up with a way to do it better. NPR's health policy correspondent, Julie Rovner, is joining us for that conversation. Stay with us.

I'm Mary Louise Kelly. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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