How Actor Blair Underwood Gets Inside His Characters’ Heads
S1: This ad free podcast is part of your Slate plus membership.
S2: I always think inside first inside out, it really it’s psychology is one reason I become want to become an actor because it’s all psychology. Why does this character do the things he does? Why does he think these thoughts? Why does he respond and react the way he does? Where does that come from? And then the other the outside, the physicality. That is important, too. But it’s just a layer. It’s the icing on the cake.
S3: Welcome back to Working, I’m your host, Ramona Lum,
S4: and I am your other host, Isaac Butler.
S3: I wonder if some of our listeners recognize the voice that we just heard, that the actor Blair Underwood is like, why don’t you tackle the quick recap on Blair Underwood’s career?
S4: Oh, my God. Well, I mean, he’s done everything right. I mean, shortly after leaving Carnegie Mellon when he was an undergraduate acting student, he started getting TV work. And that led very quickly to a leading role on L.A. law. And since then, he’s been in TV shows. He’s been in movies like Deep Impact and set it off. And he was in Treatment and Sex and the City and Dirty, Sexy Money and Agents of Shield. He’s been on stage a bunch of sort of like really done everything, I feel like as an actor on all levels of the industry.
S3: But there’s a particular project that you’re talking to him about. Right. And it’s a project that I think working illustrators might want to know about. Could you fill me in there?
S4: Yeah, absolutely. So he is in an audio play. It’s a new audio recording of a play actually did a few years ago in Williamstown called Paradise Blue by Dominic Morsell. And that is being released by Amazon as part of their audible originals line. A lot of audible originals, which is original audio programming, just what it sounds like. They’re actually adaptations of plays, audio adaptations of plays. And if you’re a New Yorker, you might know that Amazon has actually pre pandemic. They took over an off Broadway theater in which they were producing plays that they were then releasing as audible originals. Those were all one person shows. One of them starred Billy Crudup, another starred Carey Mulligan. And one of the I think newer things they’re doing now is doing actually multi character plays. And this is a multi character play. Andre Holland, the great Andre Holland is in it, too. It’s directed by Ruben Santiago Hudson. So there’s sort of beefed up what they’re doing over the course of the pandemic in terms of adapting theater to your ears.
S3: You know, I am missing a live performance, and I know that if I am feeling that absence, it must really be getting to a theater guy like yourself. But I do think that there’s been a lot of creativity seeing performers and theatrical companies find these workarounds, using technology, allowing them to do their work to perform for audience. Is that part of what this new endeavor is about?
S4: Yes and no. If I may really quickly, though, to also shout out my friend Mike Dazy has actually started performing live. He does shows for fully vaccinated audiences because he’s a one person crew. Right. So they don’t have to have a lot of people in rehearsal or whatever. And I am actually going to go see him perform on Friday. I’m going to my first live theater event since February. I’m going to start crying, talking about it on my first live theater event since February of 2020, and I feel unbelievably emotional about it. So you’re right, I am missing it a great deal. Audible originals predates the pandemic. But my guess would be, is that they, like everyone else who’s producing work that touches the theater, is thinking about, well, what else can we do? Right? What else is out there? What what more can we be doing right now to fill the need that people have? And so they’ve released a whole bunch of new audio originals over the past couple of months, of which Paradise Blue is one.
S3: So as like you are a director, you’re somebody who is just finishing up a book about acting. I suspect you’re probably really comfortable talking shop with a performer. But I wonder if you ever feel starstruck, like if you were going to direct Cate Blanchett, you know, would that feel difficult or do you find it just like, you know, any other day to hop on a zoom and find Blair Underwood? They’re waiting for you.
S4: Well, you know, it really helped with the whole starstruck thing was doing The World Only Spins Forward, the book that Dan Quayle and I wrote about Angels in America because we interviewed like 250 people for that book. And a lot of them were pretty famous. I mean, that helped me get over feeling starstruck. These are normally just they might deal in a rarified world, but for the most part, the regular people with regular concerns, they have a job. They care about the job, you know what I mean? And that was certainly my experience with with Blair. He was very personable, was a very friendly conversation. I do get starstruck at times, though. You know, the very first time I interviewed Nathan Lane, I got really starstruck because he’s someone I’ve been watching since I was a kid. And because you mentioned to her, I actually got very starstruck by Cate Blanchett, whom I have never spoken to, including in this incident. We were just standing next to each other because we were both conveying our well wishes to the same director of a show at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Right, and she was there to say hi to him and I was there to say hi to him and she was wearing, you know, like a camel overcoat, just huge glasses. And and she was so like elfin and strange and like an alien being that I just completely was like I could barely say hi to the director I was there to say hi to. So it does indeed happen. But for the most part, I’ve grown pretty comfortable with it.
S3: Well, I am extremely excited to hear two theater nerds talk shop, but as I understand it, this week, Slate plus listeners are getting something pretty juicy. Could you give us a sneak preview?
S4: Yeah, absolutely. So for those of you who have sleepless, Blair and I are talking about the time in the early part of his career in the 1980s, he wound up accidentally seated next to Sidney Poitier for a flight across the United States. And I asked him what they talked about and what lessons he took from that conversation for the rest of his career.
S3: Just as a reminder about Slate. Plus, members enjoy exclusive content, zero ads on any Slate podcast, bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. But of course, most importantly, you’ll be supporting the work that we do here on working. It’s only a dollar for the first month to sign up. Go to sleep, dotcom slash working plus. OK, let’s hear Isaac’s conversation with Blair Underwood.
S4: Blair Underwood, thank you so much for joining us today on working.
S2: Oh, man, it was my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
S4: You studied acting at Carnegie Mellon in the undergraduate program there, right. Do you feel like you still use the training you got in college in your work today?
S2: Oh, I’m sure I do. You know, I my major was music theater, actually. And that went I mean, I was never really a great singer or a great dancer, but I was encouraged when I was doing a local dinner theaters in Richmond, Virginia, the Swift Creek Playhouse.
S4: I know Swift Creek Mill.
S2: No. Are you
S4: serious? Yeah. My whole family’s from Richmond, Virginia. I’ve been here. I’ve seen shows that secret. Well, yeah, I
S2: really do that. It’s amazing. Yeah, well, that’s what I kind of started in when I was in high school. Amazing. Yeah. So Ellery’s LeBron, I never forget. She was a kind of a standard player there at the time and I was a junior in high school doing Finian’s Rainbow. That had to be 84. No I’m no no. 81, 82. And she said, listen, if you want to really if you’re serious about this acting thing, you got to become a triple threat. I’m like, I don’t even know what that is. What does that. She said well you got to learn how to sing, dance and actually, you know, learn different disciplines. So therefore you have more of an opportunity to be employed. And I said, OK, cool. So that’s what I do. And I kind of follow that path and try to learn as much as I could just about, you know, performing in different ways. So therefore, when I end up going to college, I end up becoming a music theater major. And I do find, especially in the dance training we had, I find that different characters I play how the physicality is incorporated into playing that character. You know, you play the character from the toes up. And a lot of that came from just the training and understanding of just, you know, knowing your body and the space that you’re taking up and how it how your body moves and plays in that space. The another thing we had to teach at Carnegie Mellon, her name was Victoria Santacruz from Brazil. And, you know, we have classes where we learned all the technique and the classics and, you know, just everything we need to know about acting and which was fantastic, which is which is the training process. But she kind of threw all that stuff away. She that’s important. But now that now that, you know, it, let it all go. And her whole thing was be there, just be there in the moment. Don’t think, just feel and be there. And that that very simplistic instructions is something I take with me all the time. I often think about that, throw everything else out the window, you know, the person in your eyeline or the light or the cameras or the people watching on the sidelines or the audience or whatever, somebody eating popcorn in the third row, whatever it is. I just, you know, it’s there because you’re aware of everything. But at a certain point, you’ve got to let all that go and just sit in that moment or moments of that character.
S4: Hmm. Do you do a lot of preparation when you’re going to play a role or you you know, you said you were thinking about like the physicality of the character. Are you sitting there breaking down your script into beats or, you know, what’s your preparatory process like?
S2: Well, it is. I mean, I do a lot of preparation, primarily because you want it to be in your bones, everything to be in your bones and you don’t want to have to think about, especially theatre. I’m about to direct and act in a movie right now, and I’m just being hard on myself to learn the lines because there’s too many other things to be concerned with, especially direct directing is a full time job. Playing the lead in a film is a full time job. So we trying to juggle both. It’s a lot. And I just think about this last night, you know, whenever I’ve done a play, I try to be off book before I even start the first rehearsal. And that’s not to impress anybody. That’s not to say to do anything, but for to be ahead of the game. So the more you the faster you know, the faster you get in your brain and then your body and in your in your spirit, the better you can really play, because that’s when you can really that’s when you can let everything go, be there and really play and be that character. So, yeah. But, you know, I don’t it’s funny you mention that about breaking down scripts. I thought about sometimes you see scripts. I see people. Right though do slashes and inflection points and all that stuff. And I never have done that. And and it kind of goes against whatever training we had, which was play the moment, you know, how we talk. What we do is going to be different every time it comes out, even with the same intention, it could come out 10, 15, 20, 30 different ways. So it’s not change. The intention is you to change the arc of whatever the scene is about or the story. But there are many different ways to do something. So I don’t know. I don’t ever like getting locked into inflections or even rhythm or pace, just the intention.
S4: So do you think of yourself as kind of starting with the text or starting with your body, or is that a false dichotomy to even think about it that way, you know, whether it’s outside or inside or whatever?
S2: I don’t think it’s a false dichotomy. I always think inside first inside out, it really it’s psychology is one reason I become want to become an actor because it’s all psychology behavior, right?
S4: Yeah, totally.
S2: Why does this character do the things he does? Why does he think these thoughts? Why does he respond and react the way he does? Where does that come from? That’s all psychology. That’s all the the internal machinations and thought processes of the character at the time and then the other the outside the physicality. That is important, too. But it’s just a layer. It’s the icing on the cake.
S4: Do you do a lot of research? I mean, to take, for example, the character you’re playing in in Paradise Blue, right? He’s a he’s a bebop trumpeter and a club owner. You know of a specific time in Detroit. Are you researching those things for character ideas or or are you more just focused on, you know, what is the intention? What does he want? What are his tactics?
S2: No, it’s all part of the process for, you know, for Paradise Blue as it’s set in the 40s in Detroit. I was fascinated. First of all, I’m a lover of history by this. The setting of paradise blue. It’s set in a place called Black Bottom Detroit. I had never heard of Black Bottom, but Black Bottom Detroit was a place in the 20s and 30s. In the 40s, they had about three or 400 black owned businesses. They had a whole area called Paradise Valley. That was all jazz clubs and restaurants and speakeasies. And and I had never heard of that. And, you know, of course, it was it was dismantled, I think, in the 50s or late 40s. And that’s part of what our play is about. In the 50s, when Mayakoba came into Detroit and he wanted to base a lot of gentrification, but they wanted to break up that neighborhood and drive a freeway right through it. So all of that history that I’m remembering right now is important to know the world that you’re living in. So and as you question it starts internally, then you build the physicality, but then you also build the world around you. And and it’s I find it so important, it’s critical to understand that world because that can affect how you walk, how you carry yourself, how you interact with each other. You know, the man you are in this world, this is a black man in the 1940s who is an artist, he’s a brilliant musician and there’s a great line I wish I could think of off him, but it speaks to being brilliant and black and forced to be second class and how that can drive you insane. And that’s really his journey, you know, so if you if you understand, I mean, I have my my my walk in twenty, twenty one as a black man and dealing with police and law enforcement and all of that, that’s a different kind of walk. I mean, you see you hear so many young black kids a day or so, I would never I would never be a slave, you know, I would run away or I had killed myself. Well, you know, you weren’t there. It’s easy to say that. So context matters. So. Yeah, so that that history I understand that history is is imperative, I think.
S4: And I imagine that’s a very different walk from what you were doing in A Soldier’s Story, the way you were in on Broadway that was shut down by the pandemic.
S2: Yeah, that’s that’s the thing. And it’s one of the things I’ve tried to ising my whole life is try not to repeat myself in subtle ways. I mean, the characters I play, they may not be demonstrably different and even in the appearance, but but the thought process, how they think, what they do when and how they do it is very unique in its subtleties. It’s one of the things that I was taught other thing in Carnegie Mellon, Missouri, and it was my freshman drama teacher, acting teacher. She said, you know, the difference was I’ll never forget this. The difference between good, very good and great is specificity, the specifics, the details, how you think something, what you do, the nuance of it all. So it’s not so much I look a lot of carrots I played. I mean, you mentioned those to, you know, blue in paradise, blue and Captain Davenport in soldiers play. They are very different in appearance, but sometimes even in appearance, they may look similar. But it’s all about the specificity, the specifics of who these people are.
S4: Whom are you? The kind of actor who likes to use your own, you know, life experiences and creating the imaginative reality of the work or you sort of like affective memory. I just don’t get that stuff anywhere near me now.
S2: I like I got to use what’s real. I draw that in, lean into anything that’s been real and honest and authentic to feel that first. And, you know, some things, depending on what it is, it’s just so far beyond my experience. You have to use your imagination. Right. But when and wherever, you can just kind of open up those rooms in the mansion of your psyche, emotionally or just intellectually, it’s important to just especially emotionally, just kind of open that up if if it’s deep pain or grief. If I felt and I have felt that you tap into that and then again, once you open up that well of emotions, I found, then the layers of the specifics are going to take you on a different journey.
S4: Is that how you’re able to also control it? Because, you know, the thing you don’t want to do is open a door that then you can’t you know, something on the other side comes out that you can’t.
S2: Well, I’ll say try to control it, but it never really works that way.
S4: Yeah. Can you? Because I was thinking about that scene in the first half of paradise blew right. When, you know, Blue is talking about how haunted he feels with pumpkin.
S2: I see myself turning into some I don’t like some familiar. In a scares me. I got to run from four, they me run
S4: wear blue, what you say in. It’s a very emotionally deep, difficult scene, it’s a kind of vulnerability we haven’t seen from him before, and it leads to some uncomfortable stuff between him and pumpkin, you know, in that scene physically. And I was just curious about, you know, how you prepare for those kinds of moments when you’re acting.
S2: Well, you know, that particular scene, Blue is dealing with a certain now again, in twenty, twenty one in modern day medicine, we have names and titles to call this. You know, he’s dealing with anxiety, anxiety attacks and depression and all of that and probably a little schizophrenia at the same time, you know, hearing voices in his head. So, you know, knowing that going into it, like we said before you, I personally grab on to what I know and understand about that. My mother went through mental it’s a mental illness and depression and anxiety at one point. And I remember what that looked like, what it felt like. So it helped me just know what that should feel like. And then it’s just about allowing yourself to go deeper and deeper into those in this case is really it’s insecurity. It’s the opposite of control and allowing yourself to lose control, you know, with within himself and also with the pumpkin. But it’s dark. You know, those are dark corners. You go into the dark places and they’re not they’re not easy. And it’s definitely easy to shake once you go there eight times a week.
S4: Yeah, I was wondering, I mean, do you have a process for how you let go of that stuff?
S2: You know, I found I just got to go for a walk, you know, especially when we’re doing a soldier’s play, you know, at the very end. The last monologue I give is just it ends with just a gut wrenching howl and scream and just tears flowing. And those are real tears and, you know, eight times a week. It’s exhausting. And especially you’re doing matinees. I just felt I just got to get away from the theater. I take a walk and just somehow try to psychologically push, reset and then start all over again and do it all over again.
S4: So at what point in your process, you know, are you starting to rope in the director and talk to them about the work or get feedback from them? I mean, obviously, when first rehearsal shows up, you and the director working together, but do you do or once you’re on set in a film, but do you have conversations with them before that about what you’re thinking about the play?
S2: Yeah, no, I found it very helpful to kind of just get a sense of what the director sees and feels and what he or she is going for. You know, what is the what’s the objective? What are we trying to what are we trying to accomplish here? And where are you know, what I feel and reading it and my understanding of it, just so I know we’re on the same page and I’m not going too far off the rails.
S4: There must have been moments over the course of your career you’ve worked on so many different projects of, you know, disagreement with how you envision maybe something as little as you’ve seen or a beat or, you know, the whole character with the director. How do you navigate those moments of disagreement within collaboration? That’s a great
S2: question. Well, you know, Isaac is funny. In theatre is one thing. Film and television, especially television. If you’re doing serious television where which is which is a giant fast moving machine, you’ve got to get on with it. What I’ve learned, it’s a bad trick. But what I’ve learned is they’ll say do something they don’t agree with. I say, OK, OK, then I usually do it the way I feel is right. And that’s what I’m talking about. That’s it. Cut, print, move on. It’s and
S4: there must’ve been a survival tactic
S2: as a survival tactic for sure. And now the theatre. The theatre is different, though, man, because, you know, you got to do that. You’re doing that same scene, though. We’re not moving on to a different scene and not losing the light and everything. So, no, I think in the theatre I haven’t had that many. We’re usually kind of pretty much in sync. But I’m also someone, unless it is very feels very wrong. And if it does, I speak to it. I want to see if I can accomplish what the director’s going for, if I can help them with their vision. I mean, I think it’s important. It’s it’s one of the things I love about the theatre. It’s the respect that the theatre has for culturally, traditionally for playwrights. You never change a playwrights word Hollywood film and television. You’re always changing scripts. They’re always on the fly, you know, but the script, the book and in the theatre is sacred. You know, if the writer wants to change it, then he’ll change it. But you make it work. And I just found by the same token, with the director, if the director wants that going in that direction, he or she has the overall vision of the entire piece. I’m just a puzzle piece in that. So I try to try to accommodate what they’re going for every once in a while. This just doesn’t feel right. I just I don’t know how to make that work.
S3: We’ll be back with more of Isaac’s conversation with Blair Underwood. One of the things we’d love to do with the show is help solve your creative problems. Want to know how to stay motivated, how to take a big risk, whatever your trouble is. Send your questions or quandaries to us at working at Slate Dotcom or give us a ring at three zero four nine three three work. And if you’re enjoying this episode, don’t forget to subscribe to working wherever you get your podcasts. Now let’s get back to Isaac’s conversation with Blair Underwood.
S4: What to you is most useful in the kind of feedback you get from a director, from the direction you get from them in a role, you know, like in a kind of ideal circumstance, what are you getting from them that’s most helpful for you?
S2: Oh, ideally, just tell me what you want. What are you going for? What is the the impact you’re going for? That is the most useful. What is not useful is a director telling you how to say the words. You know, if I’m directing this podcast, Isaac, I would say I need you to talk to this actor about, you know, this that in the third, I’m not going to tell you how to set up your microphone. Right. Or to put your pop filter. That’s the don’t tell me how to do my job. So just tell me what you’re going for. So that’s usually very novice directors that do that. I mean, most directors don’t do this kind of they kind of know that’s a cardinal sin to give a line reading.
S4: Right. You know, it strikes me that the blue is one of a number of characters you’ve played who who are kind of jacked up, difficult, let’s say, difficult people. Right. You know, a complicated there. They have a certain uncompromising vision about that. You know, Stanley Kowalski, you’ve played Stanley Kowalski, Charles Joseph Walker, and self-made is has a difficult side to him as well. And I’m curious about how you approach those kinds of characters. Are you you know, some actors envision themselves as advocating for the character. You know, I’m on the character side. Others of them have a sort of more a more analytical approach, you know, or whatever, when when you’re playing a character who has that kind of complicated, difficult side to them. How do you navigate that?
S2: Well, I tell you, one of my favorite roles was I had the great privilege of playing Othello at the Old Globe down here in San Diego with Barry Edelstein, the great Barry Edelstein, who’s a master at Shakespeare. And I remember when I was without my my friends that you love playing tormented characters, don’t you? Kind of do. I got to do I kind of I love exploring. This is the psyche of it. But how I get into it, I know I do I do advocate for the character. I think you have to. You have to like and love the character and find things to love about that character in order to envelop that skin, to get get underneath and love that character, you have to because there’s usually when the oil there’s the torment, when there’s where this torment. And tumult, this pain. You know, part of the exploration is where does the pain come from to learn that, but this pain and that hurts the sadness, this depth of soul there. So I find you have to not only understand it, but you have to embrace it and advocate for that character to be heard, to be seen. Otherwise, I find you’re you’re on the outside looking in and you’re judging that character. I don’t like playing this guy because he’s a he’s a serial killer. Right. I get I get it. I get it. But that’s me, the actor. But if you can become that person, you’ve got to get up underneath that person first and then you may find that that person doesn’t like it himself. That’s a different thing, that’s a different shade, but I think you got to find that person that that. At some point, there was usually something right that becomes a broken oftentimes most times in psychology and in real life, it’s in childhood. Where did you come broken? Where is that child who became innocent? And as long as I love Wicked so much, you know how seriously serious, Elphaba, I mean, to watch this child, this green child who says I’m going to defy gravity, I’m going learn how to fly and I’m going to become evil because the world sees me as something I’m not what I am good, but I’ll become bad if that’s the way you want to see me. And that usually happens with characters that are evil or mean or bad. It’s usually because they are tormented and because usually they were tormented by someone along the way, usually at a young age.
S4: Do you worry about what the audience is going to think of your characters, or is that kind of just the director’s job
S2: now as the director job? I think you got to be all in you got to be a villain
S4: now that you’re preparing to both direct and star in something. Are you are you having trouble shutting off when you care about that? When you don’t?
S2: Yo, man, that’s a great question. I was just before this podcast talking to the writer, and there’s a scene where, based on my character has to has to kill a woman on screen. But this woman was the partner of a serial killer. Her husband’s a serial killer. And I said, I can’t. I don’t. The character can’t come back from that just to kill a woman. You can’t. And but so we changed it. So the woman was as bad and as demonic as the husband and maybe even controlling him to make things happen because. Yeah, so. So from a producer standpoint or directorial standpoint, you have to think about those things because you want that you do want in the construct of storytelling. You want the audience to root for the protagonist, for the the main character. And if they don’t root for him, then they’re not going to like them. There’s there’s such that of course, we all know there’s their anti-heroes, but there’s anti-heroes and there’s anti-heroes who devolve into villains. Mm hmm. And you just I don’t I don’t want to I don’t like what they did. So so it’s interesting. It is. To answer your question. Yes, I do find myself seeing it from different perspectives and deciding what makes the most sense.
S4: So Paradice Blue, you did it in 2015 at Williamstown, right. And now it’s you’ve recently recorded it and it’s being released by Amazon as part of their audible originals line. Yeah. What was it like to go back into that material but also have only your voice as your only tool for creating the role? Yeah.
S2: Oh, man. It was phenomenal because I first of all, I love this character so much. And this play, by the way, there’s the play, there’s the character. But there’s also that other layer of the music, the jazz music of 1940s Detroit, which I love, man. So just to kind of just just dive back into these waters was fantastic. And but to do it just with your voice was even better in one way. It was it was a different experience because this was the beginning of a pandemic. I did the whole thing. I think we should recorded over two or three days. I was in my wife’s closet because, of course, you know, the clothes absorb the sound. And I was there and I found I Termina turn the lights off except for just my computer screen so I could see the script. But it just really helped me use a different part of my brain, I think, to listen to the other care, not to be able to see them and not to be able to physicalize what we’re doing and not to see what they’re doing physically, but just tap into the rhythms and the flow and the beat of the spirit and souls of the people and then layer in the music underneath that. It was just it was a magical experience.
S4: That sounded real good, don’t.
S2: Clap for that, don’t ever.
S4: Clap for that, so when you are recording it, we’re your cast mates also on like a Zoome call while you were recording it, or were you just recording your stuff by yourself or what was the actual process by which you all made it?
S2: Yeah, no, thanks for asking. I’m glad. No, thankfully, we could hear each other and we could see each other. And it was I think it was Zoome actually. So we saw each other initially. But I found myself I found eventually I stopped looking once we started rolling and and I kind of put the visual to the side and really just put up and made my script more prominent and just kind of watch the words and listened to what they were presenting. So that was helpful, you know, just have some kind of interface. But but again, what we were doing physically was very different. Having done the play and been on stage with these actors, you know, we just couldn’t do all those those things. Right. So it forces you to it color the words differently.
S4: We’ve obviously been talking a lot about theater, in part because that’s my background as well, and in part because that’s the the project that is up right now with Paradice Blue. But you work a lot in television and film, of course. Do you see those all as kind of one artistic practice in process? Or do the kind of demands of what you have to do on each of those different kinds of sets change how you work?
S2: The theater is like doing running a marathon every night, eight times a week, and it really is not easy, but a less difficult endeavor to work in front of the camera. Not easy by any stretch, but it’s less difficult because you can stop and start because you don’t have to you don’t have to have to help play in your head at any given moment. Right now, you just need that scene for the day. So that makes a difference.
S4: I know it’s been a while since you started in the industry, but did you have first find the kind of fragmentary nature of a shoot where you might be shooting a scene that’s way later in your character’s arc than what you’re shooting the next day? Or, you know, you have to hit the mark in the exact way and have your arm in the right position for the shot, you know? Was that difficult to kind of figure out how to deal with early on in your career?
S2: No, it was very difficult initially just to understand that. I mean, really, what you just said, the continuity of it all, you know, you light a cigarette in this take and then the cigarette is like an inch long and it should be two inches long and all all those things. And while you’re thinking of making the scene believable, I found it very challenging at the beginning because I started in the theater, you know, I started doing theater in high school, you know, all of that. And then going to school and Carnegie Mellon learning the theater. All of that is continuity. All of that is flow from beginning to end. So then I started working and doing camerawork this doing the ending first in the middle last. And I said, what the hell? I mean, I found out I just had to really focus. And I became good friends with the script supervisor. Every job I took, that person who’s always watching the script, who’s whose job is to follow continuity. And I’d always check in with I would say him or her always heard I’ve never seen a male script supervisor. Interestingly enough, I’ve never had but always befriend her. And before every scene, OK, where acting went on, where am I coming from? Where did I come from before this? So I could kind of figure out and just, you know, immerse myself in what that moment is about.
S4: In the days of, like the the studio system in the 30s and 40s, there was a sort of informal apprenticeship where you would be on a different film set every couple of weeks. And whoever was the bigger name actor might take you under their wing and kind of teach you how to do all that stuff. Did you have kind of mentors who helped you figure out how to operate on a set or was it something you had to figure out on your own?
S2: No, I’m so grateful. There have been so many mentors along the way. Almost. I’ve always I always had an affinity for. Older people are elderly people, but also just those who have more experience than me, I gravitate toward them. I mean, Erika Slezak, when I was on One Life to Live three months, I first got to New York. I didn’t know how to hit my light and we’d be in a scene together. And she would like below the camera frame kind of reach out, grab my shoulder and just kind of move me a little to the right or little to the left to make sure I was in my light of I think about my life. I’m trying to get my lines right and make it believable. But there have been many, many people along the way who have been there that I’m grateful for. Hmm.
S4: When you’re considering a role, you know, you must get offered plenty of roles over the course of a year, you know, what are you looking for in the parts you choose? You said, like wanting to do something different. For example, one of your criteria. What else are
S2: you thinking about? That’s a big criteria. I don’t like to repeat myself, so do something different and challenging and unique for me just to keep keep it interesting. That’s one at this stage of my life. I just want to have fun and enjoy it. I mean, that’s really a big part of decision making. By that I mean, I want to find out who’s involved, who is the team of people, who’s the writer and director? Who are the other actors? I just I don’t like dealing with egos. I don’t like doing it because it’s just not necessary. You know, life’s too short. Life is too short. So that’s a big part of it. So but it starts with what is the character is something different secondly than in the script, is the script good? Is the story something that’s intriguing and compelling and fascinating to do? And now that my kids are older, you know, one of the criteria was I didn’t want to leave home, you know, so I wouldn’t leave home more than two weeks ago while we were raising our kids. Now I have more freedom because they’re off to college. They’re doing their own thing. So that’s no longer criteria.
S4: Well, Blair Underwood, thank you so much for joining us this week to talk about your process.
S2: Oh, man, this was fun. Isaac, I appreciate it. Thanks for taking the time.
S3: So I just want to note that Blair Underwood began his working life in dinner theater and that you, Isaac Butler, a consummate nerd, knew the dinner theater in question.
S4: It did blow my mind when he said I was like, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
S3: I feel like this is a very important lesson for every caterer or personal assistant out there who’s slogging through auditions or hoping to get a crack at a spot in a regional theater. You really never know.
S4: Yeah, you absolutely never can tell what is going to lead to what when you’re making your life creatively. You know, sometimes oftentimes I think people’s careers are only really visible in the rearview mirror. But I do think it’s important to note that, like, look, Broadway has been hit hard by covid. Right. But it’s going to come back the big time nonprofit theaters, the public roundabout, MTC, things like that. Same deal. But what I’m really worried about are the smaller theaters, the small to mid-sized theaters, especially the nonprofits, the places that are nurturing and discovering the Blair Underwood’s of tomorrow, the places that serve that really direct link to their communities. I mean, those are the places that were hit the hardest by the financial crisis in 08. And I think those are the places hit the hardest by the pandemic. And some of them aren’t coming back. And so that that that is the thing that I think of when you talk about that. It’s like I want Swift Creek Mill to still be around in five years, you know? Yeah.
S3: And, you know, I think it’s also really telling that hearing Underwood reflect back on those early days of his career. You don’t hear any sense of, you know, that he’s disdainful or uninterested in those smaller aspects of his work. Right. That he has moved on to bigger and better things. You can just hear someone who is an actor and who was acting and he seems so conscious of himself as someone who’s just a working stiff.
S4: Yeah. I mean, you know, acting is a profession. It’s a weird profession. It’s a profession where you can get really famous and, you know, all sorts and rich and all sorts of that. But it’s still a job. And I think, you know, clearly he likes to challenge himself. You know, he said he tries to do something different with each part. He doesn’t want to repeat himself. And and but his view on that career is very much that of a journeyman, you know? And I think there’s something quite healthy about that. And it’s one reason why he has survived the experience of getting a big gig so quickly early on in his career as well as he has, because I don’t think people always realize and I didn’t really realize this until maybe a decade ago, but it is actually kind of traumatic to go from being a guy who’s going on auditions and hoping to get a job and whatever to having a leading role on a network drama at a time when network dramas are seen by over 15 million people a week. Right. That is a level of fame, a level of money, a level of life change that it’s very abrupt and it’s very hard to keep a level head as you navigate that. And one of the ways you can do that is to treat it like a job.
S3: I really love hearing creative people talk about their work. As quasi mystical, you know, and one of those things that actors say, and I’ve heard this before, is that it’s a physical endeavor. It’s about using your body to lose yourself a little bit. It sounds so funny to me. But, you know, this might be a stretch, I think, of losing myself in the physical process of like making dinner or going for a run or whatever. And it kind of makes sense to me.
S4: Well, I think another way that anyone can experience it is to wear clothes that fit you, but fit you in a very different way from your other clothes. Right. Like if you wear a T-shirt and jeans, put on a button down shirt and a blazer and pants. Right. And you’ll suddenly notice that your body changes as it was in response to that. And then actually your affect changes in response to what’s going on on your body. And actors do that in sort of a more profound, holistic way. One of the strangest things about acting, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot with the book, of course, is that as artists, actors are both the artist and the material. They are the painter and they are the paint at the same time. And that makes it different from almost every other creative endeavor that it’s their bodies, their voices, their souls that they have to make their work out of.
S3: That’s a really interesting distinction at the same time, though, it’s very clear that acting is sort of an intellectual endeavor. You know, we heard Blair Underwood talking about having a grasp on history itself, say to understand how the character he’s playing might have held his body at a different point in history. It reminded me a lot of my conversation for this show last year with the director, George C. Wolfe. You know, you can’t just be good looking or good at memorizing lines to be an actor. You know, clearly that helps. But you have to have a brain.
S4: Well, you definitely have to have a brain if you’re going to work with George C.. Wolfe was a genius and talked so fast that, you know, you’re going to have to to to wrestle with that. Yeah. I mean, we have the stereotype of the dumb actor, right. Or the vacuous actor or the self-involved actor or whatever. And certainly there are actors like that. There are people like that in every job. But most actors I know are very smart. They might not have an advanced degree and whatever, but, you know, they’re very smart and they researched the hell out of everything that they’re doing and they’re thinking deeply about engaging with text. You know, I heard this interview with Frances McDormand a couple of weeks ago, and she was saying that, you know, the two things that are most important to her as an actor are, you know, like a deep engagement with psychology. And that, you know, particularly theater is a collective endeavor of engaging with literature. And, you know, you have to have a brain to be able to do that. And you have to be interested, intellectually curious, I think, to be a really good actor.
S3: I really loved hearing Underwood’s obvious reverence for his education and for his training. One thing that I was really struck by was a simple phrase that he brought up. The difference between good and great is specificity. I can absolutely see how that applies to performance. And now I kind of wonder whether it’s really broadly applicable to a lot of different art forms.
S4: Yeah, I think it’s broadly applicable. Absolutely. I mean, you know, that idea, which is actually kind of a 20th century idea that an actor is playing a very specific person and you want to drill down into the little details to be as specific in your choices. That was that was a big thing that actually changed a lot about how we think about acting. And I think it’s absolutely applicable to everything. You know, you can get lost in the weeds of something and sometimes you need to just move on to the next sentence if we’re talking about writing. But, you know, particularly in a language like English where you have a thousand words that mean different shades of the same thing, which verb you use, you know, the more specific you are about that, the stronger your sentences are going to be or even something like how we book this show, thinking really specifically about what kinds of guests we’re missing and what more of and things like that. You know, I do think that’s how you take a good draft of something and make it better is by making it more specific and more true to itself.
S3: Well, I’m not even an actor and I never will be, but I feel like I’ve learned something useful. So I appreciate your effort this week.
S4: Thanks, Ramon.
S3: We hope you’ve enjoyed this show, if you have remember to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts, that you’ll never miss an episode. And yes, I’m going to give you one final slate plus pitch slate. Plus, members get benefits like the zero ads on any Slate podcast bonus episodes of shows like Slow Burn and Dear Prudence. But I also hope you’d like to support the work that we do here at Slate. It’s a dollar for the first month to learn more, go to sleep. Dotcom’s working.
S4: Plus, thank you so much to Blair Underwood for being our guest this week. And as always, enormous, enormous thanks to our fantastic producer, Cameron Drus. We will be back next week for Woman’s Conversation with books to grammar its Instagram for books. It’s a thing Jordan Mobile. Up until then, get back to work. Hazlet plus members, thank you so much for your support, here are a couple of extra questions and answers featuring a wonderful impression of Sidney Poitier there just for you. And I hope you enjoy. OK, so I got to ask. Oh, I read in an interview that at one point while you were in doing L.A. law, you were on a cross-country flight and you happened to find yourself seated next to Sidney Poitier and had a long conversation with him about, you know, about the the job. What did he tell you in that conversation? I mean, you must have learned so much over the course of that that flight. What did you take away from that?
S2: Oh, Isaac, man. Man was a five hour flight. It was from New York to Los Angeles. Right. I decided to give them the first couple hours to himself. So I got five hours. So I give them two hours free that I hit him up the next three hours. But as it turned out, I had gone to Carnegie Mellon and studied music theater and I was on L.A. Law for I think I was my first year. I literally was in New York doing press to promote my first appearance on L.A. Law, my first year. So I was just the new kid joining the cast and my flight returning from New York to L.A. My seat was right next to Mr. Porter and I was going to write my job. My charge on that plane was to write my final thesis because I’d been out of school, college for three years. And Don Marinelli, who was the dean of fine arts at the time, said I was on the show and they had heard I was doing this show, L.A. Law. They said, if you want to graduate, you know, you can use the three years you’ve been out in the world as credits real life credit. But you have to write a final thesis on what you’ve learned in the three years. So I was going to write that that was my job. I was going to spend those five I was writing that final thesis became the conversation I had with Sidney Poitier for those three hours. And it was called The Business of Show. And thematically, that was the bottom line, that what you’re doing is it’s a multibillion dollar industry, it’s show business. And you have to understand the business and you have to understand how to comport yourself and to navigate this world. So a lot of that conversation was about that. I mean, one quick there are a lot of different ones. One last year you mentioned Stanley Kowalski a couple of times we did on Broadway in 2012. Ironically, he mentioned that. He said he said so. Let me ask you something. He said, are you good? And I was like, hey, man, I mean, not compared to you, I mean now he said, no, no, no. He said, no, no. All ego and insecurity aside, are you good? I said, well, you know, Mr. Forte, I think I think I can make a situation in the character believable and on a good day, make an audience feel something. And he said, OK, OK, that’s good. Good answer, he said, but you really know how good you are by the amount of degrees you’re able to seduce an audience. And then he said, it’s just like when I saw Marlon Brando on Broadway doing A Streetcar Named Desire, I was there opening night and I watched him and whatever he was doing and it wasn’t tricks. It was just whatever he was doing. I could not take my eyes off of him. He seduced me. He seduced the audience. So it was just a lot of irony in that playing Stanley Kowalski is like 20 years later on Broadway. And and he’s always been he’s he was one of those mentors for me. I mean, that Stanley Streetcar is my Broadway debut in 2012, and I was a nervous wreck. My family and friends said nobody could nobody would know. But I’m telling you, I was a nervous wreck inside. And twenty five minutes before the curtain goes up, my sister Maria comes in and she has a big bouquet of white flowers. And she said, This is from Mr. Portier. I said, Oh, man. I said, I have to call him now. Curtain’s about Goban, 30 minutes. I said, please call him and I have to say thank you. And I called him in and he picked up the phone. And anyway, he really wanted to come out and he couldn’t fly. He couldn’t he wasn’t feeling well. And he said, I just want to tell you, you you have what it takes, kid. He said, you go out there and you show the world the breadth and depth and width of your talent and you have fun out there. And I was like, oh, I’m good now. I’m good. I tell that story. Somebody said, what? Did that make you nervous that he told you? I said, no, it it liberated me. It liberated me because he gave me and he said, just go have fun. You know what you’re doing. You just have fun with it. But it was just ironic all those years later where he referenced Streetcar and have that great privilege and honour that was to to play him, Stanley and do Streetcar and his connection to that. I’m very grateful for that.
S4: There is this kind of in TV and in film and in theater, this reckoning with both in terms of workplace diversity and the work we do on our stages and screens with with the legacies of white supremacy and with with with trying to create a more equitable industry in terms of representational politics, a better work, you know that we do. You’ve been in the industry since the 80s. I’m just curious about, you know, from your from your perspective, what do you think has there’s a big question. So feel free to answer as much or as little of it as you want. What do you think has changed for the better? And where do you see the work that needs to be done the most?
S2: What has changed for the better is that people are listening. And people of good heart. And minds want to see change, but also what’s even better is that even the cynical. Commerce driven. Executives and the decision makers in corporate America, they see that there it can affect in a positive way their bottom line. And I think what needs to change is to have more people who either have an openness or a heart. And I will say more specifically, more people of color and more diversity sitting in those boardrooms making those decisions. You know, we’re talking about we’re going to know whether we’re talking about the theater. We’re talking about network television streaming corporate America and everywhere, more people that have an open mind and have a lived experience that is different than maybe the people who’ve been sitting in those seats. Most, if not all of these these years since the advent of of of entertainment. Right. So it’s I find it listen, I’m a glass half full kind of guy, and I find it very encouraging that people want to listen. I do think, to be honest with you, I think that. It’s necessary to also make people understand. The white people that it’s not about replacing people. You know, people, it’s a very real thing, you know, the basis of wanting to provide for yourself and have a job and put a roof over your head and feed your children. And if we make room for black and brown people and all shades and and more women and whatnot, if we have more diversity, does that push anybody else out the door and maybe sometimes in a quantitative way, but it doesn’t have to be that way necessarily. And that’s what we’re going to have to do as a society. We’ve got to make room at the table. And and now is a time where people are no longer asking for room and saying, we’re going to come sit at the table and we have something to offer. And we can also help you make turn a profit. Because in most normal business, we want to turn a profit, but but all communities have a value. A monetary value, a humanitarian value, and I think it’s incumbent upon us and I think I think more and more where we are in twenty twenty one, people are working hard to try to find or at least experiment with what that looks like. And that’s that’s a start is better than we were at 20 a year ago before the pandemic.
S4: That’s it for this week. Thanks again for your support. So.