…And a Passion: Q&A with Jeff Still

“All you need for theater is two planks and a passion”—one version of a saying attributed to Spanish playwright Lope de Vega (who actually said something a little less pithy). Planks can be gotten anywhere. For passion, you need actors.

Given the cooperation of the Fates, this will be an occasional feature, exploring the life and work of actors by means of a standard set of questions. My current respondent was suggested to me by a mutual friend in Chicago, actor Rick Peeples, whom I thank.

In the entire opening-night performance of Fish in the Dark, Larry David’s current Broadway comedy, Jeff Still is the only cast member who got a laugh from New York Times critic Ben Brantley. (You can find the review here, along with a photo including Still.) He’s from Edison, New Jersey, and now lives in New York City. Still’s presence on the Web is confined to his Facebook page.

Jeff Still headshotWhat’s your current role?
Currently I’m playing Jay Leventhal in Larry David’s Fish in the Dark, on Broadway.

What sparked your interest in acting?
My original major in college was broadcasting, as it had been my childhood dream to be a baseball broadcaster. After a year of radio work in college, I decided I really didn’t like that environment and, after a meeting with a playwright-in-residence at Trinity University in San Antonio, decided to take a chance on acting. I remember this famous exchange: I asked him, “Isn’t it risky to go to college and get a degree in theater?,” and he responded, “It could be risky to get a degree in accounting; you might as well major in something you enjoy.”

I didn’t realize it at the time, not having grown up consciously wanting to be an actor, but I did grow up pretending, playing games with myself, and always pretending that people were watching. I could never have articulated this at the time or, indeed, until recently—but I wanted to be an actor without knowing it.

What actors, past or present, do you most admire?
Two of my favorite film actors are Spencer Tracy and Al Pacino. I’m Italian-Irish, so I feel Pacino satisfies my Italian side while Tracy satisfies my Irish side. Also, their styles—Pacino emotional and passionate, Tracy restrained and confident—are so different I feel they complement each other. These days I don’t think there’s a better film actor than Sean Penn; I don’t think there’s a better stage actor than Mark Rylance. And my favorite female performance of all time is Gena Rowlands in A Woman Under the Influence.

Whose work have you seen recently that you admired?
Onstage, Tracy Letts in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Full disclosure: Tracy is an old friend of mine, and I’ve known him 35 years, but still—there was a marriage of the right actor at the right time in the right role. Mark Rylance in La Bête—incredible. Recent film performances that have impressed me are Michael Keaton in Birdman and J. K. Simmons in Whiplash.

Where did you train?
I have a B.A. in theatre from Southeastern Oklahoma State University and an M.F.A. in acting from the Theatre School at DePaul University (formerly the Goodman School of Drama) in Chicago.

Who has most influenced your work?
That’s a good question. I started training as an actor around 1979–80, so certainly the many film performances of the 1970s, mainly those of Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson, and Robert De Niro, influenced me greatly. And even though it may seem obvious by now, Jimmy Stewart’s work in It’s a Wonderful Life is fantastic, perhaps upstaged by the popularity of the film. Also—and this may sound funny—I’m originally from New Jersey and have always been a big Bruce Springsteen fan. Springsteen influences my work by his own work ethic, passion, and dedication. I can’t do what he does onstage, naturally, since he is there with his own instrument and his own music, and I am immersed in a character, but I’ve always felt that his adage that you must “prove it all night—and then prove it all night again” is terrific advice for a stage actor.

Have you made any memorable mistakes?
Oh, my, yes, of course—too numerous to mention, I’m sure. One of the biggest that comes to mind is during a performance of Same Time, Next Year, when I as George was supposed to ask Doris, “Have you seen my hairbrush?,” at which point she picks it up and throws it at me. One night I opened up my shaving kit and the hairbrush was already in there, so I held it up and improvised, brilliantly, “See my hairbrush?” Oh, it was awful. My acting partner looked like she wanted to kill me. She grabbed the hairbrush out of my hand—and threw it at me. She handled that a lot better than I did. This happened in November of 1983 and it’s the first mistake that comes to mind—how’s that for memorable?

How do you maintain your instrument?
I walk a lot and jog 4–5 times a week. When I was younger I was a real runner, but now I’m in my mid-50s and my knees are barking, so I do what I can. Sit-ups and free weights—minimal, I’m not Jack LaLanne—every other day. And I drink a lot of water.

Do you ever use a coach?
No, though I know actors who do, regularly.

Is acting your only work?
At the moment, yes, but I don’t recommend it. It causes tremendous pressure when the job ends, and the job always ends.

What are you good at?
I’m good at typing—85–90 W.P.M.—and acting. That’s about it. I’m also good at sitting in the corner and cracking wise, though it’s hard to get steady paying work doing that. And I can name all the presidents. Again, skills that don’t pay. And no one really needs typists anymore. And acting work is as hard to come by now as it ever was. So I should probably cultivate another answer to this question.

What do you wish you could do?
Professionally, I wish I could sing better. It would open me up to so many more casting opportunities. I’m a marginal singer at best, and this has been good enough for me to be cast in a handful of musicals, but I wish I were more solid at it, so I was less limited. Especially as I get older, I don’t pursue musicals anymore at all.

What role or roles would you most like to play?
I’ve been fortunate to play a lot that I wanted to play: Roma in Glengarry Glen Ross, Teach in American Buffalo, Moe Axelrod in Awake and Sing!, Tom in The Glass Menagerie, John Proctor in The Crucible, Salieri in Amadeus—all of those were dream roles, and I actually got to do them. Two that are out there now that I would love to play are Junius Booth in Austin Pendleton’s Booth and Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. I read them out loud all the time in my living room. I’ve got a long run going in my living room.

If you weren’t an actor, what might you be doing instead?
I’d still like to be a baseball broadcaster; that dream dies hard.

Do you have a favorite book, play, film, or TV show about actors?
Moss Hart’s Act One is a must-read for actors. Stage Door is a fun film about actors. The recent film Birdman was rare in the accuracy with which it depicted actors and acting; the beginning of Tootsie did this well also. Usually actors are not depicted well when they’re playing actors—either writers, or actors, or both, can’t resist the temptation to comment on the profession instead of just play the profession. As for books on acting, that’s another story. I’d say Sanford Meisner’s book and Michael Caine’s book are two favorites.

Do you have any good actor jokes?
The one that comes to mind are the five stages of an actor’s career:

1) Who is Jeff Still?
2) Get me Jeff Still!
3) Get me a Jeff Still type!
4) Get me a young Jeff Still!
5) Who is Jeff Still?

This also reminds me of a story my friend Austin Pendleton likes to tell. He once showed up at an audition where they were looking for an “Austin Pendleton type.” They wouldn’t see him. He said, “But I am Austin Pendleton!” They said, “We know; we’re not looking for you, we’re looking for an Austin Pendleton type.”

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