Turning the Table on 'Actor's Studio's' James Lipton As the writer, producer and host of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio, James Lipton is known for his ability to get his guests to say things they've never said before on camera. He talks about his guests, his technique, and some of the show's more interesting moments.

Turning the Table on 'Actor's Studio's' James Lipton

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

You probably know James Lipton as the man who interviews famous actors and directors on cable television. As the writer, producer, and host of Bravo's Inside the Actors Studio, he's known for his ability to get his guests to say things they've never said before on camera.

Jack Lemmon discussed his alcoholism. Spike Lee teared up as he described his difficulties financing the movie Malcolm X. More recently, Lipton pulled off a television coup when he got Dave Chappelle to talk about why he walked away from a $55 million contract and went to Africa.

What you may not know is that James Lipton read at the age of one and a half, wrote poetry at three, and completed three novels by the age of 12. He's the author of the publishing classic An Exaltation of Larks, which has been continuously in print since 1968. It's a collection of nouns of multitude that goes beyond the familiar gaggle of geese to include a parliament of owls and a knot of toads, and Lipton contributed his own. An acre of dentists is one my favorites. He's had success as a producer of television specials, as an actor on the Guiding Light, and he's a competitive equestrian rider and a licensed pilot. Today, James Lipton joins us.

Later in the program, we'll continue our series Rethinking Iraq with Dan Senor. If you have questions for the former spokesman of the Coalition Provisional Authority about the way ahead in Iraq, you can send us an e-mail now. Our address is talk@npr.org.

But first, academic, actor, writer, producer, and television star James Lipton. It's your turn to unleash your blue index cards. If you have questions about his guests, his technique, or the show's more interesting moments, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. The e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

James Lipton is also dean emeritus of the Actors Studio Drama School, and he joins us now from our bureau in New York City. Nice to have you on the program today.

Mr. JAMES LIPTON (Host, Inside the Actors Studio; Dean Emeritus, Actors Studio Drama School): Thank you very much, Neal. It's very nice to be here.

CONAN: And those who are unfamiliar with your program, I think the key thing to understand is it's not just a television show. It's a class.

Mr. LIPTON: It is absolutely a class - was from the day it was invented. It's part of the Actors Studio Drama School, which is at Pace University here in Manhattan, and that is - essentially, that's what it's been from the first day and what it will always be.


Mr. LIPTON: It is a class in a master's degree program.

CONAN: And we sometimes confuse your role as the teacher of this class with -confusing you for a journalist.

Mr. LIPTON: Yeah, that's something that I've never been able to fathom. I'm up there as dean emeritus now of the Actors Studio Drama School, and the guests are there to teach my students. I have only one criterion in inviting people to our stage, and that is does this person have something to teach my students? That's what we're there for.

CONAN: And you…

Mr. LIPTON: It's a show about craft.

CONAN: You focus on technique, and we're going to play a clip. This is, I think, from your very first interview that was broadcast on Bravo. And it's you talking with Paul Newman, October 24, 1994.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Inside the Actors Studio”)

Mr. LIPTON: Most of us who've watched you work all these years were filled with admiration almost from the beginning, excluding of course The Silver Chalice in the cocktail gown…

Mr. PAUL NEWMAN (Actor): Oh, I've got to…

Mr. LIPTON: …but the - but you wore one in it.

Mr. NEWMAN: Oh, no, no, no. I had a cocktail dress.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: Really?

Mr. NEWMAN: Nero had a cocktail gown.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: Okay. But anyway the - I'd like to know what you mean when you speak of yourself as a character actor rather than anything else.

Mr. NEWMAN: I really honestly don't know how to answer that question now. I suspect that when I said that that I was - I had a somewhat amorphous and shapeless personality that stole little pieces from the characters that I played and that was the face that I showed to the public. So I don't know that that's accurate anymore.

CONAN: It seems curious to those of us who've watched him over the years to think of Paul Newman with an amorphous personality, but what you're focusing on is technique.

Mr. LIPTON: That's right. I made two resolutions when - first of all, I should explain that the Actors Studio Drama School was initially my invention, as was the show. They both began simultaneously. But I made two resolutions: one, that the show would be about craft, and of course television networks aren't crazy about that idea. They think it's going to be drab and dull. It turned out to be otherwise, I think.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LIPTON: The other was that there would be no pre-interview, because I'd been interviewed on most of the shows that we watch. And always there's a young person who arrives with a tape recorder and a lot of questions, and you talk for hours. And then it's all sent to the writers of the show, and then the writers - it's transcribed, and then they go through it and they cull the answers they want. And then they write the questions that the host will ask, and it's all carefully scripted and brilliantly done. I wouldn't be able to do that. Those people are much cleverer than I am.

But nevertheless, when you arrive at the show, there on your dressing room table is this script. They say this is what you told us, and this is what the host will ask you. And they don't say it, but you deviate from that script at your peril, because that's all the information the host has.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LIPTON: But I decided that uniquely among American television shows of this kind, there would be no pre-interview. What that meant was that I would have to do my own homework.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: Which I have been doing for 12 years. I do it seven days a week, and I work 14 hours a day, and I take Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day off. But between the beginning of September and the end of June, that's my life. And I'm very, very happy with it, believe me. But nevertheless, it is - it requires me to do all this - there's three or four or even 500 blue cards that you see on my table have been prepared by me.

And the guest, because there's been no pre-interview, the guest does not know what's going to happen next. Neither, in theory, do I. But one of the things I was going to do with my life was be a lawyer when I was in university, and the only thing that I took with me from it was the axiom in cross-examination: Never ask a witness a question the answer to which you do not know.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: So, we saw that in the O.J. Simpson trial with the gloves, didn't we?

CONAN: We did.

Mr. LIPTON: But that's what's happening up there. The guest and I are engaged perforce in a conversation because the guest doesn't know what's coming next -and essentially, neither do I. And I like that aspect of the show.

CONAN: The Actors' Studio is associated with the great teacher Stanislavski, and, of course, your teacher - Ms. Adler. But it teaches something called The Method, yet you interview all kinds of actors. Does it have anything to do with The Method anymore?

Mr. LIPTON: Oh, sure. One of the mistakes that the public has made, of many, about The Method is that it's the method. It isn't. It's a method. Stanislavski never insisted that his was the only way, and we've made that very clear on our television program. I've had over 200 guests…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LIPTON: …and we've had 200 different methods. Now there is an armature to this, and certainly it is very important in our school. We do teach the Stanislavski System, but the Studio is a very powerful stream made of many tributaries. I come from Stella Adler. Others come from Sandy Meisner. Many of them, like Al Pacino and Martin Landau, have been trained by Lee Strasberg at The Studio. But all of these tributaries of the Stanislavski System are there in the Studio, and eventually they're all there on our stage.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to have a question put to James Lipton, give us a call: 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. And we'll begin with Vince, and Vince is calling us from Berkeley Heights in New Jersey.

VINCE (Caller): Yes, hello?

CONAN: Yes, you're on the air, Vince. Go ahead, please.

VINCE: Hi, hi, yeah. First of all, we'd like to thank you for that show. My wife and I enjoy that thoroughly.

Mr. LIPTON: Thank you.

VINCE: And I just had a question - you're welcome - and I just had a question on how you handled the Robin Williams interview and how you got a hold of him.

Mr. LIPTON: You know, this fascinates me. You know who else asked me that question? You and Barbra Streisand.

(Soundbite of laughter)

VINCE: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: Yeah. Barbra wrote me a letter, and she said how did you do it? What was it like? People sort of feel sorry for me. It was one of the most glorious nights of my life. How do you handle Robin Williams? You stay out of his way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: Remember, what you see on the air - you see an hour, right? Sometimes we do a two-hour special, as we did recently with Dustin Hoffman, with Al Pacino, as we've done with Spielberg and Scorsese. I'll give you - Vince, you guess. How long is that person up there on the stage with me to give you that hour? What's your guess?

VINCE: Yeah, it just seems at the time that you were (unintelligible) him, like you were just like not cutting him off, but like, okay, that's enough for now. And okay, now we're going to move on.

Mr. LIPTON: Hmm, no, but I asked you a question.


Mr. LIPTON: How long do you think we're actually up there onstage?

VINCE: I don't really know.

Mr. LIPTON: Want to guess?

VINCE: The whole hour, I would assume.

Mr. LIPTON: Yeah, the whole hour. We're there between four and five hours.

VINCE: Whoa.

Mr. LIPTON: It's a classroom. Those students are with that person for four or five hours of their lives. Our Actors Studio Drama School students at Pace University, they are privileged to be there in the presence of Dave Chappelle or of Pacino or of Dustin Hoffman for four or five hours. And then I edit it down to the one hour or the two hours.

But Robin Williams was all over that stage, up the walls, across the ceiling, spinning around me like a dervish for four to five hours.

VINCE: Amazing.

Mr. LIPTON: And believe me, there was no desire on my part to slow him down.


Mr. LIPTON: I didn't cut him off.

VINCE: If it was possible (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of laughter)

VINCE: Well, thank you very much. We do enjoy the show, and thanks for the answer.

CONAN: Okay.

Mr. LIPTON: I'm glad you like it. Thank you.

CONAN: And thanks for the call, Vince. And you've been - let me ask you a little bit about your technique. You've talked a lot about your preparation. Do you feel - you've been criticized for not challenging your guests enough.

Mr. LIPTON: And that also interests me very much. I'm not a journalist. If I were a journalist and I had a political person in front of me, you'd hear some very, very thorny questions. But I have appeared there for 10 years when I was dean, as dean. Now I'm dean emeritus. It's a classroom. It's a school.

And, Neal, I'll ask you. When you were in university and your teacher or chairman of your department or your president of your university brought a guest in to be with you for a period of time and to share with you that person's experiences, was that an occasion when you saw that person challenged and even attacked?

These people come to teach my students. My object is to bring out from them the frankest possible responses, and I think that it would be - it would work against that if I were to challenge them and try to embarrass them in any way.

CONAN: Our guest is James Lipton. If you'd like to speak with him: 800-989-8255. I'm Neal Conan. We'll be back after the break. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

Our guest today is James Lipton, executive producer, writer and host of Inside the Actors Studio on Bravo. Tomorrow, two new DVDs of the program come out, including the now famous interview with Dave Chappelle. To hear why Chappelle walked away from a $55 million contract and went to Africa, you can stop by the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org.

If you have questions for James Lipton about his guests, his technique, or the show's more interesting moments, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. And here's a good example of how a simple question can elicit a very revealing story. It's a clip from that interview with Dave Chappelle back in February. And, James Lipton, you ask Dave how do you feel about Martin Lawrence as a person and as an artist? And this is how Dave Chappelle answered.

(Soundbite of TV show, “Inside the Actors Studio”)

Mr. DAVE CHAPPELLE (Actor): So let me ask you this: what is happening in Hollywood that a guy that tough would be on a street waving a gun, screaming they are trying to kill me?

Mr. LIPTON: Yeah.

Mr. CHAPPELLE: What's going on? Why is Dave Chappelle going to Africa? Why does Mariah Carey make a $100-million deal and take her clothes off on TRL? A weak person cannot get to sit here and talk to you. Ain't no weak people talking to you. So what is happening in Hollywood? Nobody knows. The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It's dismissive. I don't understand this person, so they're crazy. That's bull (censored). These people are not crazy. They're strong people. Maybe the environment is a little sick.

CONAN: And that, it seems to me is another key to the success of your program, James Lipton. You give people an opportunity to speak at length about issues they care about, about acting, as opposed to the general run of interviews where they're being asked about their personal lives.

Mr. LIPTON: Yeah, that was - in addition to deciding in the beginning that it would be about craft, I made myself another pledge that there would be no gossip. Once again, this runs against the tide of television, which relishes gossip and fun and games and laughs and quick sound bites. But for us, for better or for worse, it has paid off.

Look, when I began this show - which is now, we're in our 13th year - if you had put a gun to my head and said I'm going to pull this trigger unless you predict for me that this television show will be in 80 million homes in America on Bravo, will be in 125 countries around the world, and will have 12 Emmy nominations in 12 years, I would have said pull the trigger.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: It was - it's - looking back on it, it's impossible. I'm writing a book now for Dutton, which will be out in a year, called Inside Inside, which is the story, of course, of the last 12 years of my life…

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LIPTON: …of the show and of the rest of my life as well. And so I've been reviewing these years and putting on paper what these people said to me. And I give you my word, Neal, that I would not have dreamed that any of this would have happened.

Now I'm not claiming that the show is good. I'm certainly not claiming that I'm good at it. But I am saying that something has happened, and that it happened despite television's rules, regulations, and taboos. We do talk about craft, and we don't talk about gossip. And I don't give a darn about their private lives, except where the private life has shaped both the person and the artist.

best amplifies the problem of addiction to drugs and to alcohol.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LIPTON: And Drew Barrymore and many of our guests have spoken so frankly. Tim Allen told us what it was like to be in prison for two years. So that we - the funny thing is that we - that by refusing to deal with embarrassments and personal problems and gossip, we - I inadvertently, I admit, blew open a door to the most intimate moments of these people's lives, because by asking - if I were to ask you just tell me in two minutes an event of your life that shaped you, that brought you to this moment right now, that was influential, a turning point for you that was important in shaping you and shaping whatever you do, you would respond with enthusiasm or joy or grief.

It is a - it's what Stanislavski called an affective memory, in which one reviews something that meant something once, and in the reviewing means something now.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question we have from Andrew.

Will Mr. Lipton comment on Sacha Baron Cohen, an actor who interviewed Lipton in character as Ali G. He seems to be operating in a new realm of acting in that he creates situations in which to improvise with his various characters and remains in character no matter what happens.

I should add parenthetically, he's the star of a - of the number one movie in America at the moment: Borat. He also seems to be remarkably capable of getting people to open up and proclaim their deepest prejudices, etc., by using his ability to play a character to make them feel that they're among friends.

Mr. LIPTON: That's correct. Here's the thing about Sacha Baron Cohen. He appeared in my home. They set up their equipment. What happens is that they have to - they hand you - before they begin to turn a frame of videotape - a release form, a contract, which you have to sign. They wouldn't dare go ahead without it, because if you didn't like what they were doing, you could stop, and then they would have no recourse.

So they give you a contract to sign. I do it, too. My guests all sign a release to the Actors Studio - which owns Inside the Actors Studio - before we go onstage. You wouldn't go onstage with someone if they didn't sign it, and they all sign it willingly on my show.

They gave it to me. It said the person who's going to be talking to you may not be the person he says he is. You waive the right to sue us because in the edit room, we may do some things to you that are embarrassing, etc., etc., etc. Well, if that isn't a red flag, what is?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: I knew whatever was going to happen wasn't real. The question was did I want to undertake it? I looked at this guy. He looked very funny and very clever, and so I thought, well, I'll go ahead and do it. So I signed it, fine. And we began. But his gimmick is that he always fools everybody. I don't think he does always fool everybody. He didn't fool me, but I loved what we were doing. We improvised for two hours. You're right. It is improvisation.


Mr. LIPTON: And at the end, he - in his DVD of his first year in America, he sort of features this. He gave me a rap that he'd written, because Ali G fancies himself a rapper, a gangster rapper. And I said this is no good. I won't do it. He said why not? I said I'm a lyricist. I've written two Broadway musicals. This is terrible.

I said you want me to write you one? He said yes. So I wrote it on the spot. It's all there on his show. And then I did my own rap, and he was my beat box, which he did very well. And we rapped knuckles at the end of it, and for weeks after that, young people would walk up to me on the street and say you killed on Ali G.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: But he presents it always as if he were - you know, as if I hadn't a clue. I didn't know who he was, but I sure knew he wasn't who he said he was. But I enjoyed it, and I didn't want to break that or spoil it. I wanted it to go on the air.

The only thing that I did was, at the end, I said to him and his producer, look, in the course of this, there's a lot of misogyny, there's a lot homophobia, and there's a lot of racism. I said in the course of the last two hours, you and I have debated this. Some of it is very funny and - but we really got into some serious debates about it. In the edit room, you have me at your mercy. If you make me complicit with your homophobia, the character's - the person's homophobia - with the misogyny, with the racism, I'll test that no-lawsuit clause.

And they kept their word to me. I said you can play it if you want, but you must keep my responses. You've got to allow me to debate you on your show, and he did. And subsequently, we've met each other in the flesh, so to speak and -we were both nominated that year for an Emmy, and we met at the dinner after the Emmy ceremonies. And we were like, you know, (unintelligible). We embraced each other. We felt like we'd been through a war together.

CONAN: Let's get Jennifer on the line. And Jennifer's with us from Syracuse, New York.

JENNIFER (Caller): Hi, enjoy both of your shows.

CONAN: Well, thank you.

Mr. LIPTON: Thank you.

JENNIFER: Wanted to hear your thoughts on Will Ferrell's parody of you on Saturday Night Live.

Mr. LIPTON: The worst day of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LIPTON: The worst day of my life…


Mr. LIPTON: …no, you're wrong - was day he left Saturday Night Live.

JENNIFER: I agree.

Mr. LIPTON: Because that meant that I was leaving Saturday Night Live. I love him. I love the me that he created. You know, I don't know if you saw Bewitched - the movie in which he starred with Nicole Kidman - at his invitation and Nora Ephron's, I was in the movie. We played in that together. I played an interviewer in the middle of - a television interviewer - and the whole movie hinged on that interview.

So he's a great friend, a man I respect very much. He was on my show, on my 10th year celebration and we worked together, we wrote together a sketch in which he interviewed me. And for me it's one of the high points of the last 12 years. I love him to death.

JENNIFER: Wonderful. Good to hear. Thank you very much.

Mr. LIPTON: Thanks, Jennifer.

CONAN: None of it stung?

Mr. LIPTON: No. He has me dead to rights. I loved every minute of it.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail…

Mr. LIPTON: It's a kind of acceptance. It puts you in the mainstream, I think. He did it again recently with John C. Reilly two weeks ago…

CONAN: Just the other night, yeah.

Mr. LIPTON: - on Saturday Night Live. There he was again - popped up, boom.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail from Dennis in Buffalo, New York.

I'm an arts educator and an actor on the side. I noticed that despite familiarity with the stage, I get quite nervous when meeting or talking with more experienced actors or performers. Mr. Lipton, after meeting such exceptional talent during the lifetime of your show, do you ever get star struck or nervous?

Mr. LIPTON: I've been accused once or twice in my life of being star struck. So I have to admit to that. Sometimes I am impressed my them. Wouldn't you be? Scorsese impresses me. Spielberg impresses me and Barbara Streisand impresses me. A lot of people impress me. I'd have to be inert not to impressed.

But the second half of my answer I don't expect you to believe. No, I don't get nervous. I never get nervous. It's just not in my nature. And this knowing that the way my show's constructed with no pre-interview, what's going to happen on the night of the performance is like a circus ring. There are two ladders - two rope ladders at either side of the stage, so to speak - speaking metaphorically. And the guest goes up one, I go up the other, and we meet in the middle of a high wire with no net for four or five hours. And yet that doesn't make me frightened.

I fly airplanes and I jump horses over high fences, so I have ways of risking my life genuinely. This doesn't feel like that. I'm very exhilarated before I go out there, but I have never been frightened. I mean, some things frighten me like anyone else, but that doesn't scare me. I feel very eager just before we out there. So does the guest.

And I don't eat the day of the show. You know, anymore than you would eat before boxing 15 rounds, which is what it sometimes feels like, or playing a basketball game. So I'm famished at the end of it and very often I'll say to the guest at 11:00 at night or midnight, would you like to go with my wife and me, we're going up to Elaine's for some food. And very often they say yes.

The guests do get scared. Harrison Ford was shaking so hard that his hands were rattling on the - his rings and watches and things were rattling on the arms of his seat. And afterward, we went up to Elaine's - he and my wife, Kedakai, and I - and we sat down, he said I have a confession to make. I said what. He said I didn't sleep for three nights before I came to your show, I was that scared.

Paul Newman was scared. Kathy Bates I thought was going to faint. A lot of these people have never, ever done television interviews before. I have one - a first coming up on December 3rd, I'm shooting it. Eddie Murphy's coming to me. He has never, ever done it before. And I don't think he'll be scared, but I do know that we've had a lot of people who have come to us uniquely because they simply don't do this kind of thing.

But they do - it's an opportunity to divest themselves of some thoughts and some concerns and some hopes and so forth, that once - just once in their lives to do it. The Jack Lemmon moment was the most famous. The one you've already mentioned. When we were talking about Days of Wine and Roses and I asked him to do his line, my name is so-and-so and I'm an alcoholic. The one that one says in front of AA, I'm told.

And he did it, and I said to the students you see how simple, he didn't push, and yet it's so deeply moving. He said yes and I'm so-and-so and I'm alcoholic. And I said yes, that's it. No, no, no, he said, Jim, I'm an alcoholic. And I said are you speaking as a character now or as Jack. And he said I'm speaking as Jack. I'm an alcoholic. And in the green room afterward his wife said to me that's the first time he's ever said it in public.

So these moments do happen. And they're precious to me and to our students. The students - imagine students like 16 times a year - if they attend the Actor's Studio Drama School at Pace University, they are in the presence of these people. It's a class and they learn. I've seen them out there taking notes.

CONAN: Our guest is James Lipton, Dean Emeritus of the Actor's Studio Drama School in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get Richard on the line. Richard's with us from St. Louis.

RICHARD (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

RICHARD: I enjoy your show very much and I - one of the things that I love about it is that it lets me see actors in real life and not the persona they're portraying. And there've always been actors that I've been a little bit fascinated by who are gone now - Ben Johnson and Strother Martin.

Are there any actors who you would like to have interviewed but you are no longer able to interview, either because they're dead or because they're retired or because they simply won't consent to being interviewed on television?

CONAN: And we just have a couple of minutes left, but I'd like to hear that answer.

Mr. LIPTON: Sure. I'd like to interview an actor who decided he wanted to write plays. His name was William Shakespeare. I'd like to interview (unintelligible) in France. I'd like to interview (unintelligible) in France. I'd like to interview - oh, would I like to interview Charlie Chaplin.

But I'm often asked who is the guest you would most like to have that you've never had yet. And the answer to that is the night that one of my graduated students at the Actor's Studio Drama School has achieved so much that he or she walks out on that stage and sits down in that chair next to me will be the most glorious night for me in the history of Inside in the Actor's Studio.

CONAN: James Lipton, thank you so much. And congratulations on - well, you're now into your 13th year.

Mr. LIPTON: In our 13th year and now may I - do I have 30 seconds more?

CONAN: Certainly.

Mr. LIPTON: In our 13th year, we are at Pace University. It's the new home of the Actor's Studio Drama School, and we are currently auditioning actors, writers, and directors for January registration at Pace. And I tell you that since the school was my creation - and the creation of others as well at the Actors Studio, as well as the television show - nothing, nothing, nothing in the world means more to me than this MFA, this three year MFA program at Pace University. We're there now. We have a home forever and ever. And I'm very, very, very proud of it.

CONAN: Again James Lipton, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us.

When we come back from a short break we'll continue our series, Rethinking Iraq, with Dan Senor. If you have questions for the former spokesman of the Coalition Provisional Authority, give us a call, 800-989-8255. This is NPR News.

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