Q & A with Jack Plotnick--Comedian, Actor and Acting Guru
In between gigs, Plotnick wrote an online book called New Thoughts for Actors, which can be read at his website. The manual, a sort of "self-help book" for actors, offers what Plotnick terms "Actor's Affirmations," and emphasizes inspiration over school-taught technique. If it all sounds a little unconventional, check in with Sutton Foster, Andrea Martin and others; those are just some of the actors who have learned from the mantras of this respected acting guru.
In the past, Plotnick (who got his start in theatre) has appeared in a range of high-profile films and TV shows--Meet the Fockers, Down with Love and Gods and Monsters are among his film credits. He was a regular on the the cult favorite "Action," and has been seen in recurring roles on "Ellen," "Joan of Arcadia," "Reno 911" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." He is also a noted comedian who has performed at many venues--sometimes with comedy partner and close friend Seth Rudetsky.
Currently, Plotnick provides the voice of effeminate elf Xandir P. Whifflebottom on the Comedy Central hit "Drawn Together." "Lovespring, Int.," a sitcom pilot that he created and in which he co-stars, was picked up for six episodes by Lifetime. He shared in an award as Best Actor at the L.A Outfest Film Festival and U.S Comedy Arts Festival for his performance in Girls Will Be Girls, for which he also served as executive producer. In the film, which was released theatrically by IFC Films and is now on video by MGM, he whips out his altar ego Evie Harris, "an aging actress in the twi-dark of her career, (who) drinks her way through the day, longing to jump-start her career and any man in the vicinity."
Stay, his latest picture, was perhaps the most controversial film at this year's Sundance Festival. Written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait, Stay was recently picked up for by distribution partners Roadside Attractions and Samuel Goldwyn Films (and received a rave review in the Hollywood Reporter, with Plotnick also singled out for praise).
Plotnick responded--sometimes seriously--to a range of questions on his career, his outlook on performing and on the craft of acting.
--What makes your website different from the myriad of others?
Well, usually an actor's website has their picture, resume and special skills. (Why is having a driver's license a "special skill"???)
But I created my website to help other actors.
You see, I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, a conservatory acting program, with terrific training, but I also grew up Jewish... meaning that I had terrific training in negative thinking. I kid, but nonetheless, no one in college taught me how to overcome all the negative thinking which kept me from doing my best at auditions and in performance.
On my website, I share the techniques I have discovered over the years that can help actors to release the mental blocks that keep them from getting what they want.
I titled these writings "New Thoughts for Actors; A Practical Guide to Loving Acting (and Even Auditioning!) Again."
Oh my god, that's a headache! I promise the chapters aren't nearly so wordy.
I cannot take credit for many of the philosophies and concepts within the writings. I picked them up from many different sources. However, what I've done is to apply these self-help techniques to the specific needs of actors.
And you can find it all at www.JackPlotnick.com.
--How did you get your start as an actor?
Many, many blow jobs.
…I'm totally kidding!
Now I've gone and completely destroyed any legitimacy I might've appeared to have had to your dear readers.
Okay, I'm ready to answer your question:
…what was it again?
Oh yeah! My first big New York gig was Pageant, the Off-Broadway musical comedy parody of beauty pageants. The twist was all the women were played by men. And the other twist was they were ALL understudied by ME.
I had never done drag before (save for the occasional Halloween dalliance, and a 3rd grade forage into my mom's closet), and the closest I'd come to a beauty pageant was something my college roommates and I would call "Bedsheet Beauty Pageant" where we would see who could make the best dress by draping a bedsheet around themself in 30 seconds. You'd be surprised at the variety of designs. Try it sometime!
Anyway, Pageant was a crash course in drag, but more importantly a course in comedy, as I got to watch and learn from such talented comedic actors as David Drake and Dick Scanlan.
I also met my friend and future comedy partner, Seth Rudetsky, as he was the show's musical conductor.
--You originally wanted to make a career in musical theatre, according to a section in New Thoughts for Actors. Are there any current Broadway musical roles you'd love to get your hands on?
It's been awhile since I've lived in New York, so I'm not totally up to date with the what's running.
I'd like to play the Cherry Jones role in Doubt, but, as a tenor, I'm afraid my voice is too high.
--What's easier--comedy or drama?
Comedy has always been easier for me. I have the soul of a clown.
…No, really. I have the soul of a clown. I keep it in an enchanted vial, and laugh maniacally while stroking it with my finger.
Back to the question: Allow me to put on my acting coach cap for a moment-
(First, because I want to talk about my theory of comedy vs. drama, and second, because my hair looks awful).
Actors are often quick to tell themselves they don't know how to do something. The actor with only comedy experience feels he can't do drama. The dramatic actor feels he can't do comedy. These limitations are self-imposed. These walls were built by you. If you hold a belief that you can't do something, it will be your reality until you change your mind about it.
I think the best dramatic actors are the ones who understand the humor of people's behavior, and strive to bring that out.
Likewise, I think the best comedic actors are the ones who play the honesty and true emotion in the comic beats.
Think about Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Holly Hunter, Meryl Streep, Shirley Maclaine. These actors always find the humor and the drama in every role they play. For that's the truth about life.
--You've worked with everyone from Sir Ian McKellen (in Gods and Monsters) to Barbara Streisand (in Meet the Fockers). Have you noticed that any actor has a particularly interesting or unique acting technique?
First of all, my version of working with Barbra Streisand is seeing her in the final cut of Meet the Fockers. It's not like a Broadway show where the cast hangs out backstage and everybody knows everybody. There were no cast parties, with drunken rounds of spin the bottle. I filmed my scene with Ben Stiller and was ne'er invited to the set again! (note: Plotnick played the "Rent-a-Car Agent" in Meet the Fockers and Edmund Kay in Gods and Monsters).
I must say that Ian McKellan was incredible to work with. I think that because of all his theater experience, he's able to play a scene many times and always be totally real. Me, I got one good take in me, so I tend to save it for the camera. But, even when Ian's running lines, it's like an Oscar-worthy performance. Plus, he can so quickly turn it on and off. His demeanor on the set was like a giddy child, all playful and teasing then "ACTION!" and he's totally in the moment.
As far as "unique" approaches, a fellow I know told the following story…and swears it's true!
He knew a guy who had an audition where he was expected to cry. Having no idea how to do that, and not trusting he'd find it in the moment, he came up with a plan.
"Onions make you cry," he thought to himself. So he put some onion in a plastic bag, and hid it in his pocket.
As he was reading the scene for the casting agent, he saw that the "crying" section was coming, and realized he hadn't put the onion juice on his finger yet. He snuck his hand, as subtly as possible, into his pocket as he continued the scene. He rubbed the onion on his finger and then stuck it in his eye.
He then grabbed his eye in pain and screamed.
Onion juice hurts.
Now imagine it from the casting director's point of view.
"How did his audition go?"
"Quite well, actually, until for some inexplicable reason he fumbled around in his pocket, stuck something in his eye, and began screaming".
--You've kept really busy lately! Could you tell me a bit about two recent projects--your Lifetime sitcom "Lovespring, Int." and the film Girls Will Be Girls, for which you shared in a Best Actor Award at the Outfest Film Festival and U.S. Comedy Arts Festival?
If you want to be a success nowadays it is so important to be proactive in your career. I can't recommend enough to not just be an actor for hire.
After my FOX TV show "Action" was cancelled, I went a long time without a job, and got depressed. Thankfully, I got reconnected to my creative side and started performing live and getting back in touch with what I thought was funny. I started performing at benefits as a washed up singer/actress character I do named "Evie Harris".
I created a short film as Evie, which inspired my friend Richard Day to write and direct a feature for her as well.
I am so thankful for the experience of Girls Will Be Girls. No matter what else I do in my life, I know that I got to star in one movie that is 100% my sense of humor. And how cool is it to have a video out with my face on the cover?!
When we won Best Actress Award at the Aspen Comedy Festival, I was all made up as "Evie", so I decided to run up onto the stage screaming like I'd just won "The Price is Right." It scared the crap out of Kristin Davis, who was handing out the award, and we laughed so hard about it later.
I love it when people come up to me and tell me what their favorite jokes were. (Usually it's, "Have I had an abortion? I've had more children pulled outta me than a burning orphanage.")
As for the new sitcom, a friend and I had filmed a ten minute pilot presentation. We got some of our funny friends together and did it all in one day on high def video. It takes place at an upscale Beverly Hills type dating service, in Tarzana California. Eric McCormack's new production company optioned it, and we sold it to Lifetime TV, who have agreed to a six episode deal. We start filming in March!
--A more recent film is Stay, which I understand just premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. I read that you play the meth-addicted brother of Amy, the protagonist with a dark and twisted secret from her past. What were some of your experiences with this movie?
It was so incredible because they shot it in just 14 days on a shoestring budget. I don't think they ever expected to show it anywhere but on their own TV! And here it was in the main competition for Dramatic Features.
I hadn't seen the film until I got to Sundance, and I was blown away by it. I had loved the script but was thrilled at how funny and moving the film came out. Not to brag, but we were the most talked about film in competition. I'm sure the fact that the movie begins with an act of bestiality helped to get people's attention.
I am mostly a comedic actor, so getting such a large role in a drama was very exciting for me. Towards the end of the film I have a very dramatic scene in prison where I learn that my mother has died, and even though I was terrified to watch it, I was very proud of it!
We were all constantly stopped on the street by people who wanted to congratulate us, and I actually got into several big parties. And to top it all off, I actually got some "swag", which is the free stuff they foist upon celebrities who actually have no need for free stuff. I went up to a house, high in the mountains, that was teeming with designer jeans, boots, ladies tees, and desperate promoters of said products. I was shy, but eventually was persuaded by a castmate to try on a pair of pretentious jeans. All they ask for in return is a picture of you wearing their product. Strangely they weren't so interested in taking my picture, once they had taken pics of my younger and sexier co-stars. I guess they ran out of film.
--You've had great testimonials from the likes of Alyson Hannigan and Andrea Martin. Could you relate one or two really notable success stories that you've had in coaching actors?
I used to constantly feel guilty because I wasn't volunteering my time to charitable causes. Seth (Rudetsky) would ask me why I didn't, to which I'd reply, "I don't want to hold a dying person's hand." To which Seth would always reply, "Why is THAT the only charity work you can think of?!"
So, I thought of something else I could do that didn't involve contagious diseases or colostomy bags, and I realized I've always been great at helping actors.
I began holding a free weekly actor's workshop out of my apartment. We did that for a year, and have since moved to a larger space to accommodate the growing size of the attendees.
It's been amazingly rewarding to see actors realize that they don't need more talent to audition well: They just need to let go of old blocks and issues that have held them back.
My favorite thing is when I can help someone, of whom I'm a crazy fan, to overcome a block. I always loved Alyson Hanigan, from "Buffy," so I was very excited when she came to me for help with auditioning. She left me the most beautiful phone message after she booked How I Met Your Mother. Okay, I admit it, it's still on my machine a year later!
Andrea Martin is another idol of mine, so getting to work with her was thrilling. It was really just a matter of getting her to trust that she was "enough."
--Speaking of Alyson Hannigan, what was it like to have a recurring role (as Deputy Mayor Allan Finch) in "Buffy the Vampire Slayer?" Do you have any fun anecdotes to share with fans?
Sadly, I didn't become a crazy huge fan of the show until after I appeared on it. Back then I was like, "Nice to meet you, Sarah Michelle (Gellar)". Now, I would be like "Oh my God, when you realized your sister was the key and you threw yourself off the building to save her was that harder and/or more heartbreaking than seeing Willow turn evil because her girlfriend was murdered! Sarah Michelle?! Sarah Michelle!?! Who are these guys? I didn't order security…"
I actually only did four episodes...the day we shot my death, they asked if I'd be willing to do my own stunt. "Heck yeah," I thought, "What could possibly go wrong with that?" They put a pad on my back, and asked me to throw myself against a dumpster. Okay, that hurts. Even with a "pad." I don't recommend it.
Then she stabbed me in the heart with a stake. Okay. Even a retractable stake HURTS when you get stabbed in the chest with it! Cut to: My next episode I show up in Buffy's nightmare, pulling her underwater. I guess they still figured that I was happy to do my own stunts, as they had me hold my breath underwater for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. All the while the director is asking me to look calm as feel my life ebb away.
--Seth Rudetsky mentioned that you had some success coaching Sutton Foster during the run of Thoroughly Modern Millie, and that she even invited cast members to her dressing room to share the tips! Could you tell me a little bit about that experience?
I never worked personally with Sutton, but my experience with her helped to inspire me to create my website in order to get my thoughts and approach to a wider audience of actors who might benefit from it.
When my friend Seth Rudetsky was performing his one-man Off Broadway show Rhapsody in Seth, I gave him a list of what I call "Actor's Affirmations." These are statements of truth that an actor can say to himself, which will help them to trust, relax and enjoy. Seth shared with me later that when he finally used them, even though he knew that The New York Times was in the audience, he had never before experienced such calmness and assuredness in his performance.
Sutton shared with Seth that she was experiencing some negative thoughts during her show, so Seth gave my affirmations to her.
I'm a big fan of Sutton's so I was thrilled to hear that the affirmations really helped turn things around for her.
She recently told with me that no matter what show she's in, she always hangs them on her dressing room mirror.
Affirmations are incredibly powerful statements of truth that I've found can completely change an actor's experience onstage and off. You can find them on my website!
--You mention "the vulture" as something that undermines an actor's confidence. How have you managed to fight off the vulture in the past?
The people reading this must be like "What vulture? Like, literally a REAL vulture?? Why is he fighting vultures??? Does he smell like a cadaver? Soap and water..."
Allow me to explain:
We all have two voices in our head.
There is your "ego voice", which is anything that is fear based, and you have your "true voice", which is anything based in love. This is true for everyone.
Now, it just so happens that the "ego" voice is much stronger, simply because it gets more exercise. Don't blame yourself, for it is human nature to think from the ego's point of view. You have been making the choice to think from your ego for so long that it has become a habit, something you do without even thinking. Therefore, it seems to be the only voice.
Your "true voice" is much quieter. It doesn't get out much and when it does it is usually quickly silenced by your ego.
Many people go their whole lives without realizing that they have self-identified strictly with their ego. But, by simply listening to your negative thoughts and self-talk, you create a second "you"; i.e. the one who is listening…. the TRUE you.
I'd like you to imagine moving that ego voice out of your head, and see it instead as a vulture on your shoulder, squawking his nonsense in your ear.
You don't ignore the vulture or pretend it's not there. That would be like throwing a blanket over it, trying to pretend you don't have one, with a desperate smile on your face saying "Everything's great! Doesn't it look like everything's great?!" All the while walking around with a big vulture shaped blanket hump on your shoulder.
Everyone has a vulture, so learn how to deal with him. Let him know that although you hear him, you are not interested in what he has to say.
Let me reiterate once again, It's ALL explained in the chapters on my website: www.JackPlotnick.com.
--You also state that rejection can be God's protection. Could you provide an example of this adage at work?
I believe that you can't know what's best for you. When you don't get something you thought you wanted, the universe may be protecting you from something, and leading you to an even greater destination.
I wanted to get the national tour of Grease so bad I could taste it. I worked very hard on my audition and got called back. Now, by this time I had just started reading self-help books, and for some reason I was very calm at the call back. My friend was up for the same part, and I remember wanting him to do a good job.
Well, I didn't get the part, but he did… And I was crushed.
But, while they were out on tour, I got an audition for "The Conan O'Brien Show." They were looking for someone to play a silly character, and I booked the job. I ended up making 13 appearances on the show! A writer I met on "Conan" thought I'd be perfect for a pilot he was writing for HBO, and I booked that job! That pilot brought me to Los Angeles and led to all the other film and TV work I've done.
So you see, all the terrific blessings in my life can be traced back to me NOT getting that role in Grease. I am so thankful that I didn't get what I thought I had wanted.
I know it sounds a little crazy, but when I don't get a role I say to the universe "Thank you!" I thank the universe for saving me from that job, because if I had gotten that role, on the flight to the location where we were going to film it, my plane would've crashed. So by not booking that job, my life has been saved.
Or, even if the plane wouldn't have crashed, my life course would've been altered in a way that would've kept me from meeting my gorgeous and wonderful lover that I'm still waiting to meet.
I once heard about a young couple that got married and at least twenty of the wedding guests died when the dance floor collapsed.
I'm sorry, I know it's morbid, but it's so important to impress upon you that YOU CANNOT KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR YOU.
So have faith that the universe is leading you somewhere wonderful! And you can trust that it's true, because as long as you're alive, you are somewhere WONDERFUL.
--You indicate that a good deal of success as an actor boils down to self-will and motivation. How much do you think this is luck/chance and how much is self-driven?
Obviously you gotta have the chops to be a working actor, but it's not enough to just be talented. You have to be actively involved in your craft in order to be a successful actor. So many actors just wait around for the next audition to come. And when it doesn't, as it is bound to do once and awhile, they can become disheartened and appear more and more desperate at auditions which assures them of even less work.
I believe that "tenacity" is what it takes to have a career as an artist.
There are plenty of talented people who are not pursuing their art. But, you can't be an artist unless you participate in your craft.
When I graduated from Carnegie Mellon University, we did a showcase in New York City for agents and casting directors. You might be shocked to hear that a lot of the kids who got the biggest responses from agents, one of whom even immediately landed a role on a soap opera, are no longer even acting!
Therefore, it is not talent alone that decides whether you will have a career as an actor. You must also have persistence, determination, strength of purpose, and resolve. In other words, you must have "tenacity".
Megan Mullally didn't get her breakout role til she was 40!
--You state that school-taught technique--carefully laid-out beats and motivations, etc.--can be valuable in the sense of their being like a life-preserver to a swimmer, but that the swimmer can learn to maneuver in teh water without it. Do you encourage beginning actors to learn all of that stuff, or do you think that an actor should find his/her own way from the get-go?
I definitely believe in actors getting training.
I like to think of actors as "artists." We are like painters.
A painter should learn technique. He should learn from those who came before him. He should study from the masters.
But then, he must throw all of that away. When he is in the act of creating his art, the technique would weigh him down like chains.
Creating art is something magical. While doing it, we commune with a higher power. You can't do that if you are "controlling" your performance with a technique.
Many great artists describe the act of creating their art as something they're involved in, but not in control of. They say that they don't necessarily know what the final outcome of a piece of art will be, but instead are more interested in the process of allowing it to happen.
Thomas Harris, who wrote Silence of the Lambs, and many other terrific novels, describes it like this, "The story already existed and always has. All I do is be open to it, and write it all down."
When asked how he writes music, Michael Jackson says, "Artists seem to get in the way of the music. Get out of the way of the music. Don't write the music. Let the music write itself."
There is an alternative to you controlling your performance, and that is allowing the universe to control it. Before auditions, I say the following affirmation:
"I release my need to control this audition. I know that I am not strong enough to control it. I therefore allow my higher power to lovingly guide me through it."
Upon graduating school, many adult actors are unable to get out of "student" mode. They have a habit of needing approval. They approach a performance like a student who is about to take a test, or like a soldier carrying out orders from his sergeant. There's no enjoyment involved, only "getting it right." That's no fun!
You must understand that once you are out of school, there is no one to please but yourself. An audience can only enjoy your performance as much as you've enjoyed it. They can only experience your joy or your pain as much as you've experienced it.
As an adult actor, your desire to please others only works against you.
Please don't get me wrong. I believe that studying acting is a crucial step in an actor's journey. But, as an artist, it's your responsibility to find a healthy way to incorporate what you've learned, without letting it work against you.
As an adult actor, any inner thought that triggers your inner "student/soldier" into action should be ignored.
Acting should be fun.
And, if you have faith, it is magical.
1) Jack Plotnick--as himself
2) Performing with Seth Rudetsky
3) On "Reno 911"
4) As Edmund Kay in Gods and Monsters
5) At the Aspen Comedy Festival--with Kristin Davis and Girls Will Be Girls co-star Clinton Leupp
6) In "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
7) With best buddy Seth Rudetsky
8 and 9) Jack Plotnick