Jason Alexander on talent, lessons, dreams and "Seinfeld"

by Simon de Carvalho '14

Jason Alexander is best known for his immortal portrayal of George Costanza on Seinfeld, which is often listed as the greatest TV show of all time. But let’s not put him in a box: Alexander has had a long and wide-ranging career. From his beginnings as a magician, Alexander has made his mark on most of the performing arts: He won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Musical in 1989 for his performance in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, he has appeared in hundreds of episodes of television (and even directed a few) and over 40 feature films and he was recently named artistic director of LA’s Reprise Theatre Company, where he has directed several musicals.

Alexander is visiting Harvard for a student-only event this week. I spoke with Alexander about his professional experiences and his insights.

You’ve done just about everything there is to do in the entertainment business. Can you think of one thing you’ve learned from your experience with a specific job or art form that has informed the way you approach other endeavors?

Not sure this will directly correspond to the question, but I’m hopeful. I did a musical on Broadway when I was 24 called The Rink. It starred Liza Minnelli and Chita Rivera, and they are both wonderful in their own unique way. But it was Chita who gave me a true understanding of how professionals, with real talent and the healthiest kind of ego, can conduct themselves in a business that is often destructive, classless and selfish. Chita, at the time the Queen of Broadway, treated everyone with respect from the moment of introduction. She was filled with infectious humor; she loved to play; she loved working with people. She was generous with her talent and generous to others with talent. The Rink was written to be a huge vehicle for her, which it was—winning her a well-deserved Tony award. But her notoriety was overshadowed by the presence of Liza and her eventual decline that led to her first stint in Betty Ford. However, Chita never for a moment allowed that to color or define her experience. She graciously took the second position in the publicity and allowed her work to define her value. It was a great life lesson.

On the occasions that Liza missed a performance, the audience could get a refund. In one instance, Liza was out and the number of people that remained didn't number 100. The stage manager came back to Chita and gave her the option of canceling that performance, rather than play to such a small house. Chita called the rest of the cast together and we took a vote—but she said, "Look, if we do this, we can go out there, we can have fun and play; it will be very intimate. But we can't walk through it. These 100 people chose to stay. So we give them our show. We do it right." I can't tell you how much that ethic has stayed with me. It taught me to take what I do seriously, to appreciate the people who support it. She showed me how to be a meaningful contributor to my profession.

You’re best known for your comedic work, but you’ve also done some more serious drama. Do you have a preference for drama and comedy as far as acting? What about watching?

I don't have a preference, per se, but I can tell you that comedy is exponentially harder. A good dramatic actor—or rather an actor with a good dramatic career—can succeed with an engaging face, a commanding voice and a very contained persona. They need not have enormous range; they need not have an abundance of technical method. They can do very little and get very far. And that is not to denigrate them at all. The best of those I've described have all that plus a formidable command of actor's technique and range. But for many, that is merely the icing on the cake.

However, with comedy, no successful comedic actor can survive without his or her unique voice and observations. Comedians must make informed, comedic choices, and they must craft their work. They can't wing it. Although it sure can seem like they are. The greatest compliment people offer the cast of Seinfeld is when they ask if we were ad-libbing the show. That means we did our work seamlessly. The hardest jobs I've ever had were comedies. They require imagination, technique and huge amounts of energy. So, given the choice, I'd take a drama any day cause it's usually far easier.

As for watching: There are suddenly an abundance of wonderful dramas, smart, mature and compelling. But you'll notice that finding a consistently good comedy is not easy. There are a bunch, but I think they are the exception, not the rule. And when you find one, you cherish it.

Seinfeld is a show that teaches life lessons (this website is evidence). What is your favorite Seinfeld life lesson? Is there a Seinfeld life lesson that you’ve actually put to use in your own life?

I have to imagine that the summary for a course based on Seinfeld would boil down to essentially, "Don't do anything these people do." I'm not sure I believe there are many or any valuable life lessons in the 90 hours of Seinfeld. However, having said that, I do think the notion of occasionally doing the opposite of what your instinct tells you can yield some interesting and exciting results. Not playing it safe, not allowing your choices to become ordinary or mundane, shaking things up a bit—that is all achieved through embracing the opposite. Every now and then I give it a shot. And every now and then, it gets an interesting result. Not always the best result, but certainly an interesting one.

In Curb Your Enthusiasm,the fictionalized you has written a book (or more of a pamphlet) called Acting Without Acting. How does this approach compare with the way you actually approach acting?

Well, of course, the book only exists as a cover. So it is hard to judge the content of its philosophy or methodology. I do think the title is meaningful—the audience should not be overly aware that the actor is "acting." However, the title also implies that the best result is achieved by doing nothing, and that I disagree with vehemently.

When I teach master classes, I share the arduous training that I received—training which demands absolute artistic choice in every aspect of building a performance. I tend to be very exacting with the craft of acting. Only through the specific and hard work can the actor ultimately be freed to simply "feel and react" but unless that hard work is done, the actor's work is nothing more than a wishbone or a four-leaf clover. It is an act of hope, not skill.

In the spirit of pamphlet-length acting advice, what can Harvard’s aspiring young performers and artists in general learn from you about pursuing a career in the arts?

The first thing they can learn is that the pursuit of a career is not the same as a pursuit of skill. Many actors work on the former and disregard or underwhelm on the latter. And ironically, the only absolute way of achieving a great career is by having consummate skills.

However, the thing I teach is that the era of an artist waiting to be handed an opportunity to ply his craft is gone. Everyone has the means of shooting and distributing content thanks to the Internet and digital cameras and computer editing. And just about everyone is capable of finding a space to create live performance for an audience. So there is no excuse to simply linger and do nothing. Careers are being created every minute.

I talk about creating a community, an ensemble. People who share the same artistic tastes and comprise a variety of ability. Find your directors, writers, designers, cinematographers, composers, lyricists and business people. Find your investors. Create and market your product—whether it be theater or music or film or comedy. Artists create—they create every day and there is no viable reason for you to wait for someone else to bring their creation to you.

The down side is that you may not become an overnight sensation or international star simply from doing good work. Since every artist is now free to create, many do. And to make your creations break through the noise and clutter is not easy. But the artist that plies his craft purely for the dream of fame and fortune is probably doomed to bad art or just disappointment. Do this because it is your passion, it is your absolute. No one can stop you. And if you are lucky enough to become wildly successful as a result—fantastic, and congratulations.