Actors Studio co-presidents Alec Baldwin, Ellen Burstyn, and Al Pacino

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October 30, 2019
Online Originals

Going Back Inside

After the venerable James Lipton retired, his iconic Inside the Actors Studio had to be reimagined.

Melissa Byers

For over two decades, James Lipton took viewers inside the famous Actors Studio, sharing the seminar created for students in the Studio's MFA program at Pace University.

Lipton's interview style was synonymous with the show, familiar to the point of being lampooned by the likes of Saturday Night Live.

When Lipton decided, at 90-something, to retire last year, many feared that the show would come to an end. Ellen Burstyn, one of the three co-presidents of the Actors Studio, along with Al Pacino and Alec Baldwin, explains, "Jim is in his 90s now and doesn't really want to work to like he did in the past, so it was time for him to retire.

"[The show] was off the air for about a year I think, or close to it, and everybody missed it. Everybody was at the school saying, 'When are you going to have Inside the Actors Studio again,' so we've decided it was a good idea to do it, but we felt nobody could really replace Jim."

However, shelving the show permanently didn't seem like a good idea. Burstyn says, "it was a very popular show and people really liked it. I've talked to many people, even people in the business who are used to interview shows thought that it was very different from most interview shows, and they tuned in to watch it where they wouldn't watch a regular interview show, and they liked hearing people talk about their craft. It seemed like it would be missed."

The result is a new version of the popular show, with actors and others in the industry interviewing each other.

Another change for the program is its move from Bravo, where it has been a fixture for 22 seasons, to Ovation in its new incarnation.

One thing that hasn't changed, however, is the original purpose of the show. Burstyn says, "It's a way for us to let people know about our Master's degree program at Pace University, because a lot of times people are confused with the difference between the Actors Studio and the Actors Studio's Master's degree program; they're two separate entities.

"The people in the Actors Studio audition to get in and they're members for life. Whereas the Master's degree program is, you get a Master's degree from Pace University and then you're out in three years. They're two very different entities and not everybody knows this.

"The show grew out of the Master's degree program because we started the idea of, well maybe people who are members of the Actors Studio who are well known in the business would come and talk to the students. Oh, what a good idea. We'll do that.

"Then James Lipton said, 'Well, as long as we're doing that, we should tape it for the archives.' Yes, that's a good idea, and then later he said, 'I wonder if we should put this on television?' We asked [the television networks]. It was Bravo then and they leapt at it.

"All of the actors and people who had movies coming out always would call and want to be on the show. We never had any trouble getting guests and it was very popular at the university."

Ovation knew it was getting a premium property, but suggested a change, since Lipton wasn't part of the package. Burstyn explains, "Ovation bought the idea and they came up with the concept of having rotating hosts interview rotating guests. We started with the first one,  Alec Baldwin interviewing Henry Winkler, who was just divine. He was a really terrific guest.

"He kept in mind that it was for students, and so he talked about technique a lot, which was wonderful because he's so funny and charming."

Other pairings in the debut season on Ovation are: Jane Lynch interviewing David Oyelowo, Kelsey Grammer interviewing James Burrows, Pedro Pascal interviewing Willem Dafoe, Greta Gerwig interviewing Laura Dern, and LaTanya Richardson Jackson interviewing Alfre Woodard. Burstyn interviews fellow Actors Studio president Al Pacino.

Burstyn's own approach to the craft of acting is worthy of discussion and study, as well. She is passionate about her work. She says, "I think people usually take acting at face value. They don't think about what the actor is actually doing to produce the results. The understanding of the character and communicating that to the audience. There's a lot going on inside.

"Now not what's provided by the author, but I write my own biography so I create their mother and father and siblings and where they came from and who they were in the family and how they grew up and what they did in school. Whatever I need to write about that fills out the character for me so I really know who she is. it's not just going out there and saying the words, you know?"

So far, the new Inside the Actors Studio format seems to be a hit. Burstyn says, "We're thinking that we could change that if that turns out to not be as wonderful as the way it was when Jim Lipton did it, but so far, it's working out really well. I mean, I hear that the Greta Gerwig/Laura Dern interview is just spectacular and I know mine with Al is pretty special."

Catch Inside the Actors Studio on Ovation Sunday nights at 10:00 PM ET or online HERE

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