Announcer: You’re listening to Coping Conversations on copingconversations.com. And now here’s your host, Dr. Bob Phillips.
Dr. Bob Phillips: Hello again, everyone. I’m Doctor Bob Phillips. Welcome to Coping Conversations. My guest today is actor Matthew Arkin. He has performed on Broadway, in movies and on television, and is also an acting teacher. Matthew, welcome to the show.
Matthew Arkin: Thank you for having me.
DB: First, give us a summary of your acting career.
MA: Well, let me see. It started in 1968, when I was eight years old. I did a short film that my father directed. He directed my older brother Adam and me in a short film called People Soup which was based on a short story that he had written … His acting career was going well and he was starting to want to direct a little bit, so we spent three days making this film and it was just me and Adam in it and it ended up getting nominated for Best Short Subject in ‘69 or ’70 … a terrific, sweet little movie, and that’s where I got my SAG card, at eight. Then I continued working here and there through elementary school and high school, an episode of Kojak, An Unmarried Woman, and then I took a detour after college. I wanted to try something else for a little while. I ended up going to law school and practicing law for five years. But then I wasn’t happy doing that, so I quit in 1989 and came back to acting and started doing a lot of theater in New York, and like every other theater actor in New York, the obligatory episodes of Law and Order, et cetera, et cetera. And all of that eventually lead to Dinner With Friends, which was I think my favorite play that I’ve had the privilege of being associated with. Since then, it’s just continued with New York theater and regional theater, and some film and television work.
DB: Well, you’ve been in so many different modalities … do you have a preference? Do you prefer stage or screen or the tube?
MA: You know, I don’t really have a preference. I love all of them. I love different aspects of all of them. Theater is such a laboratory, where you really get to dive in and spend weeks and months building a character, getting the chance to work on new plays and do really fine detail work, and then film can be a little like that, because it moves a little slower than television, and you can have some time to work on something, and then television is like a quick combat raid where you can come in and be shooting two scenes on an episode of a TV show and you’re there for six hours. And that’s all you have to do it. So that can be really interesting and exciting in another way, and you have to shorthand all of the tools that you use in those months of working on a play. You have to suddenly put all of that stuff to work in six hours and try to create something that has the depth and details that a theatrical performance would have, in that short period of time.
DB: Matthew, the Arkin name is certainly a recognized name in show business. Talk to us a little bit more about your acting family. Is there a friendly competition? Do you work together well? Are there different types of rolls you each prefer?
MA: I think there similarities that we all have. I made a joke a couple of years ago because there was a play that my older brother had done a workshop of here in California, and then he ended up not being available for the production and they cast me. Right after they cast me I got a call from a theater in New York asking me to do a play there and I said, “I’m not available. I’m doing this play in California.” And so they called my younger brother Tony, and he ended up doing a phenomenal job in this play in New York. And I was joking that now they’ll want Tony for something and he’ll be unavailable so they’ll call Dad. And I said “You know, maybe we should just rent a room somewhere, with a card table, and we should just sit around and play gin rummy and have a phone on the table and the phone will ring and we’ll say ‘You need an Arkin? How old? We’ll send one over.’”
DB: That sounds like a good story, and it’s good to hear that kind of camaraderie between brothers and the father and all of that.
MA: Yeah, we’ve all had the chance to work together at different times over the years and we’ve all really, really enjoyed it. This play that I just did down at South Coast Rep. One of the workshops of it, it was about two brothers and one of the workshops of it was done with me and Adam did it, and it was just a ball. He unfortunately was unable to do the production, but we had a great time together.
DB: Talk to us about your teaching. That’s interesting because there a lot of people who go into show business, but they really remain on the performing side. But you’re bringing something in addition to the table.
MA: Teaching is really … I get such a benefit out of the teaching. Aside from enjoying it, it really requires me to sharpen my thinking on things, and it requires me to go back to basics. Which is so important. I think no matter what level you are in your career, you have to go back to the basics all the time. So I started teaching … I sort of fell into it several years ago. I was meeting a friend for lunch who was taking a class at HB Studio in New York. And I was standing in the lobby and the director of the school walked through the lobby and remembered me from my time there. And he stopped and he said “What are you doing here?” and I said, “I’m meeting a friend for lunch,” and he said “Oh. Do you want to teach here?” and I was so surprised — that’s where I had studied and I held the teachers there in such esteem, it never occurred to me that they might want me. And I thought about it, and I said, “Yeah, I would like to,” and they ended up putting me on the staff. And I really enjoyed it, and got a lot out of it, and found that I had some talent for it. Then when I moved out to Los Angeles two years ago I started my own class here, and have since taken on an associate teacher, a woman named Melissa Kite who teaches the class with me. And I think it’s a really interesting class because we have very different backgrounds, and we really have a very dialectical approach to teaching, because we have different points of view about stuff. We have similar points of view in terms of where we want the students to end up, but different ways of getting there. And so we really challenge each other, and challenge the students to build their own tool box. It makes for a really interesting evening.
DB: Do you feel that people who are interested in being performers really should be schooled in this type of environment? Do you find that there are some people who are such naturals that they don’t need it?
MA: I think everybody needs training. Natural ability helps you get through a reading or one performance, but the ability to keep doing it over and over and over again, and to refine it for theatrical work … I think training is really crucial for that. And then also I think if what you want is a career, rather than a job, I think training is so important because I think we see, particularly in Hollywood, we see so often that somebody has a particular quality that they are able to market and that makes them popular, and that can bring some very high profile, immediate success. But to turn that into a long term career, I think takes craft, and craft is something you have to learn, you have to work at.
DB: So you find that you’ll channel what you have learned through your years into your students to try to help him to develop their own voice?
MA: Yes, absolutely. And I think it’s so important also to teach them … there was a brilliant quote that I just heard last week for the first time, and I posted it up on my Facebook page and I posted it on my Tumblr page.
It was a quotation from Orson Welles talking about the actor’s craft, and he was saying that every one of us has every bit of every character we’re playing inside us already, and that the job of the actor is not to put something on for when you’re going on stage, but rather to take the parts of you away that don’t serve that character. And I think he ends it by saying everyone has a murderer within us, every one of us has a saint within us. And I think when you’re able to go inside and look at those parts of yourself, that that’s when you can bring some truth to your portrayal of a character on stage. And it requires a lot of courage, because it requires us to go to some dark places and admit that we have that kind of darkness inside us, and also, equally challenging, it requires us to go to places of light, which is also frightening to go to, to say that I have heroism inside me. A lot of us say “Who am I to say ‘I’m a hero?’” Well, we all have heroic qualities, we all have dark qualities, and the courageous actor will look at all of those places and bring them to their work.
DB: What are some of the most difficult things that you’ve encountered as an actor and how do you try to help your students to overcome those things?
MA: The hardest thing that I’ve had to face as an actor … I think is … I’ve been really blessed to several times be cast in the role that would have the moment in the play that could be subtitled “And now a word from our author,” if you know what I mean, where the character finely gives voice to … really what the play is about, and there can be an impulse in those moments to bring a lot of showmanship to it. And I think what those moments really require of us, more than any kind of showmanship, is a willingness to get out of the way and let the truth of the play come through, so that rather than behaving as some sort of trophy on a pedestal, you’re more behaving as a vessel or a conduit, and that requires you to just trust and relax. So we spend a lot of time in class, Melissa and I, a lot of time in class getting … working with our students on exercises that will get them to trust that they are enough; that their impulse, that their truth, that their worth, is enough. They don’t have to put anything on, they don’t have to pretend. And it’s really exciting when you see people start to trust themselves.
DB: It almost sounds like you’re bringing an element of psychotherapy into your work.
MA: There is that aspect to it, although we are very clear with the students that that’s not what we are. I think those pathways are crucial for an actor or any artist to go down, the pathways of self-exploration, be it psychoanalysis, be it meditation, be it with your rabbi or your priest or your pastor or you’re imam. I think you’ve gotta go down those roads. I don’t think you should do it with an acting teacher, but I think our job as acting teachers is to foster and encourage the exploration that hopefully the student is doing on their own in appropriate modalities.
DB: If people would like to get in touch with you to learn more about what you’re doing or possibly get involved with one of your activities, what’s the best way for them to reach out?
MA: The best way is to go to my website, which is just my name, matthewarkin.com, and all of the information about my career, about the class, is on that website. And you can also email me through that as well.
DB: What are your hopes for how you want your career to move forward from this point?
MA: My dream is to spend my time divided between teaching, theater and film and television. I’ve been fortunate to work in all of those areas. I think they all feed each other, and there’s a great deal of excitement to me about the variety, of waking up … for instance, today I have this interview with you. As soon as we get off the phone, I have a voiceover audition. And then I teach tonight, and then tomorrow night I start teaching at a new school. I’m teaching at South Coast Rep, and then I’ll be involved in a reading of a new play later this week. So the variety keeps me interested and alive.
DB: Well, I’m glad that it’s keeping you alive and looking forward to good things ahead. Matthew Arkin, thanks so much for being with us on the show.
MA: Thank you for having me. This is great.
DB: And thanks to all of you for joining us on this episode of Coping Conversations. This is Dr. Bob Phillips reminding you that no matter what problem you may face, you can always improve the quality of your life. So long for now.
Announcer: This concludes this edition of Coping Conversations. For further information, or to contact Dr. Phillips, please go to the Center for Coping website at www.coping.com, or follow us on Twitter at www.twitter.com/centerforcoping for updates, information, or news about the latest shows. In the meanwhile, we invite you to return often for more Coping Conversations.