In Memoriam: The Teachings of James Lipton

In 1996, a friend of mine told me about a wonderful interviewer on Bravo who apparently got some of the most thoughtful, serious, and sometimes hilarious quotes out of the finest actors of our generation. Of course, I was intrigued. A cinephile like myself would eat that up. So, the next time I was over at my friend’s apartment, I asked him to cue up that Actor’s Studio thing he was talking about.

Eager to do so, he pulled out and dusted off a VHS tape, and I was soon enjoying the dulcet tones of James Lipton talking about acting with Alec Baldwin.

There’s a way to take Lipton initially as seeming a bit pompous, from his aristocratic vocabulary and manners. And maybe he was a fancy wine and cheese fellow—but when you really paid attention to him, you learned he wasn’t pompous.

He was just in love with acting.

As someone who interviews filmmakers on a regular basis, I’ve come to realize only recently how much his style and technique influenced me.

Here are some of the tips I picked up from James Lipton that I use every single day.

  • First: Do your homework. Study the person’s career. Not just the high points, but the low points too, and everything in-between. It’s amazing how much a person will open up to you once they realize you know their work.
  • Second: Don’t just ask questions, engage in a real conversation. While simple queries serve their purpose, you’ll always get more from someone if they feel like they are alking with another human being as opposed to being interrogated.
  • Last: Be enthusiastic. And my god, why wouldn’t you be? As someone who has spoken with Oscar nominees, Emmy and Grammy winners, it is an absolute privilege to speak with artists at the highest level in their field.

James Lipton had all three of those attributes in place every time an actor sat before him.

He would speak to them not only on the most obvious career points, but also about projects many in the audience may have missed. I particularly loved him bringing up China Moon to Ed Harris. The subject sitting across from him always knew the man with the notecards was prepared and interested.

While he was smart enough to never make an interview about himself and to never prattle on too long before reaching his point, he always was a human and humane part of the conversation. People let their guard down with Lipton. I have never heard Tom Cruise speak at such length on the effect his absentee father had on his life, as a child and as a man. It seems impossible to separate Cruise’s response from the man who asked the right questions.

And my how he loved his subjects. He was jovial, invested, and focused. He would laugh heartily, fight back tears when moved, and lean in tightly when matters of craft were discussed. You would swear there was no place on earth he’d rather be.

That’s not a job, that’s a calling.

One more thing I loved about him: He never – and I mean NEVER – engaged in gossip. His approach seemingly had no interest beyond the work that his subject produced. Sure, his methods would often lead to discussions about family, love, and politics, but he always got there organically – through the work.

The audience at these interviews was always made up of students at the Actors Studio. The idea of the show wasn’t just for those in attendance to be near acting royalty but to really learn from them. In fact, when Lipton’s last question was complete, he would leave the stage and leave the group of aspiring filmmakers to the gifted actor sitting before them. When he did, he would say to that thespian, “And now I leave you to your students.”

“Your students.”

Because there was a lesson to be imparted. Not by him, but by the actor he had spent the better part of the program talking to. It was generous and ego-free. To James Lipton, the show wasn’t about him. It was about the actor and those fledgling creators who come to that school hoping to become artists.

Here’s the thing: for many of us, the show was about him. It was about an approach that was as joyful as it was rigorous. Talk to people. Engage them. Learn from them. Be excited to do so.

These are all lessons too, I know. I was there for nearly all of them. I apply them continually to my trade. And while I am nowhere near his level, I do aspire to be.

Only now do I realize that I was his student too. I believe I always will be.

James Lipton died yesterday. He was 93 years old.

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