'Seinfeld' star Jason Alexander on McDLTs, hairpieces and being the 'most hated man in America' (for a time)

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 10:00 a.m. MST

“I have been so surprised by where my career has taken me,” Alexander said. “I am not an unhappy celebrity. I guess I’m a reluctant and befuddled celebrity. … I’ve learned to appreciate it over the years, only because I’ve been made to understand by really fabulous people what I do for a living, which I actually think is a very selfish profession. I like doing it, and it makes me money to do it, so good for me, is how I usually think of acting. But there’s sometime in everybody’s life when they go, ‘I need a doctor!’ There’s no time in anybody’s life when they go, ‘I need an actor!’ It’s an unnecessary profession.”

But Alexander knows that his work has had an impact on many lives. He’s received letters from people who’ve lost a family member, who are going through chemo, had their house burned down, gone bankrupt, tragedy after tragedy. One of the most touching thanks he received came from a group of U.S. Marines who told him they watched Seinfeld to maintain their humanity while on tour overseas. It blew Alexander away, he said, with “how surprisingly meaningful and impactful the things we do can be without knowing it.”

Now when he isn’t acting, Alexander travels the country doing acting workshops with students.

He said that as with any art form, there are tools that all actors learn regardless of where they study. The problem comes, he said, when an actor says, “I now know that there are all these tools, and I understand more or less what these tools are, but I don’t know what to do with them.”

Artists know what they’re going to do before they start on a piece of art, and musicians study an instrument then improvise on specific techniques. “But actors,” Alexander said, “will show up on a film set, go ‘I don’t know, I’m just going to feel it.’ Ridiculous. We have to be just as selective. … We have a lot of things we have to consider that other artists don’t have to consider, when we make these choices, because we’re not making the product from scratch. We’re actually working backwards: That’s the product, how do I get there? Really challenging.”

Alexander invited a student onstage whom he had worked with in one of his acting workshops to demonstrate what he’s been doing with the art students at UVU.

“I’m not trying to be cleverer than them. I’m not trying to stump them. This is about trying to enrich this stuff.”

He said that an actor’s job “is to make an illusion or a lie very good. So we have to do things that make the lie work for us. If the lie works for us in our imagination, it’ll take care of you.”

Alexander placed a lot of emphasis on the influence that interpersonal relationships have in acting. There are four questions he said must be weighed when approaching acting: Who am I talking to? What do I want them to do? What can I do to make them do that? What’s in the way of getting what I want?

He helped a UVU student find and implement answers to those questions for his performance of a monologue from Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.”

The techniques used, Alexander said, have also applied to his own acting. He thinks it is part of why “Seinfeld” was so successful.

“The crazy thing about ‘Seinfeld’ scripts,” Alexander said, “if you read them, you can’t find the jokes. You can’t find the punch lines. The writers were writing for characters, intentions. Writers write language, actors fill in the stuff under the language.”

Alexander took questions from members of the audience. At their requests, he played and sang eight bars of “Corner of the Sky” from the musical "Pippin," which he said was his “audition song all through the ‘70s.”

He expressed his distaste for TMZ. “There’s nothing I do in my life that’s going to be of interest to you, so nobody really bothers me,” he said. But it’s different for beautiful women, he said. “Why should you know who Reese Witherspoon is dating? And why should you care who Reese Witherspoon is dating?” He said if he goes outside without the hairpiece on and with snot on his face, nobody cares, but if “Reese Witherspoon goes out without false eyelashes, it’s on TMZ.”

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