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

Published: Wednesday, Feb. 29 2012 10:27 a.m. MST

Jason Alexander, an American actor, director, producer, writer, singer and comedian best known for his role as George Costanza on "Seinfeld," teaches an actors workshop to UVU students at the Noorda Theater on the campus of Utah Valley University in Orem on Monday Feb. 27, 2012.

August Miller, UVU Marketing

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OREM — Jason Alexander entertained and taught a crowd Tuesday night during the “Evening with Jason Alexander” event at Utah Valley University, which university officials estimated drew more than 1,000 people to the Sorensen Student Center’s Grande Ballroom.

Best known for his role as George Costanza on "Seinfeld," Alexander is visiting Utah Valley University from Feb. 27-29 to offer acting workshops to UVU students and faculty.

“I have no idea what I’ll say next,” Alexander said before launching into stories from his life and how he got into show business, demonstrating what he’s been working on with UVU’s art students and answering audience questions.

Outdistanced in age by his half siblings by nearly two decades, Alexander grew up primarily as an only child in New Jersey. Nobody in his family had ever been in show business.

He said he was “a very different child than what you would probably imagine. Very shy, very somber, very sober, not funny, not well-liked, not many friends. And the closest I came to any kind of performing was I was a very serious, even at 6 years old, magician. At 6 years old I dedicated myself to a life as a magician.”

He studied magic tricks as much as a child could, performed shows and read books. “I was about as big a geek as your could possibly be, and I was also 220 pounds at age 8. And you will never see a photograph of me from that phase.”

The switch into acting came for him when at age 12 he decided he would never make it as a magician. His family moved, and he was at the community pool, “standing in the shallow end, pathetically, and this absolutely stunning girl came over and said, ‘Do you do theater?’ And I went, ‘I do now,’ and I was pulled into a production of ‘The Sound of Music.’”

He threw himself into acting and took voice and dance lessons. He slimmed down; got involved in school, children’s and community theater as much as possible; and “fell into” an acting career.

“I can’t talk about going from amateur to professional acting,” he said. “How it happened to me was a miracle.”

Alexander was happy with where his career had gone in the 1980s. He had “all (he) ever wanted” as a New York theater actor doing commercials and small movie roles.

One of the commercials he took part in was for McDonald’s “McDLT” sandwich in 1985. “I have the distinction of being the spokesman for the only product in the history of the McDonald’s franchise that was an immediate and complete disaster,” he said.

Things changed after Alexander won a Tony award for his role in the musical "Jerome Robbins’ Broadway" in 1989. “You cannot build these kind of fantasies,” Alexander said. The Tony “somehow led to my being cast in 'Pretty Woman,'” he said, despite the director absolutely not wanting him. The success of the role led to his becoming “the most hated man in America” by women who couldn’t disassociate him from his character.

Then came “Seinfeld,” when Alexander got the part of George Costanza, a role he didn’t think he had a hope of getting. The show began at a limp, being aired on odd days and at odd times, until it built momentum and became a success. The rest is history.

“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.”

He said he hopes his personality isn’t much like that of the character George Costanza. “George is inordinately insecure. … George is incredibly reactive. If he perceives an injustice, insult, ‘You’re not giving it to me!’ (He’s) perceiving a slight that hasn’t even happened yet.”

Alexander said his proudest accomplishment is undoubtedly his children, who were conceived in vitro. He describes himself as not religious but incredibly spiritual. When he’s asked why he believes in God, he said, he thinks of his sons, and says, “Because I have two miracles every day.”

His character George Costanza was dressed by costuming in clothing two sizes too small, Alexander said. “George was always dressed in pants cuffs too high, jackets cuffs too short, waistlines and buttons too tight, and they never told me.” He never really noticed at the time.

The top three shows on his DVR are “The Walking Dead,” “Family Guy” and “The Colbert Report.”

Alexander also explained how he’s come to have so much more hair than “Seinfeld” fans remember George having. He now wears a hairpiece.

“I’ve never had a problem with being bald. Being bald led to more interesting parts, helped my career and my wife never had a problem with it.” However, he said, some of his post-“Seinfeld” roles did not work. “I am a character actor, but I’m equated with one character. And it used to just be by the audience, and now by my own industry. So the first thing I said is, ‘All right, you guys, (I) gotta shake it up a little bit,’” he said as he mimed putting on a hairpiece.

Aside from career purposes, he admitted another reason was “pure vanity.” “I was doing a part, they put one of these on me and I went, ‘That’s kind of cute.’” His wife also encouraged him to do it during performances of a play. “No matter what product I used on my head, the lights would bounce off my head like I was wearing a pith helmet.”

He started wearing a hairpiece, planning to just don it sporadically, but it becomes an issue each day for people who aren’t used to it being one way or the other, so he wears it consistently.

Following his presentation, Alexander fielded media questions before signing autographs and taking photos with fans.

When it comes to working with students, Alexander said, “I absolutely am capable of pushing too hard.” Now that he’s had 12 years of experience, however, he doesn’t think it happens anymore, although “the complexity and amount I’m throwing at them is overwhelming.”

His reaction when Mitt Romney referenced “Seinfeld” and George Costanza at a presidential debate last week was that it “was actually very flattering.” Alexander admitted that his tweeted response “was a bit snarky, but I was genuinely pleased.” He said the tweet generated a “funny chain of reactions,” including “Costanza for President” tweets, and resulted in “just a fun day where my inbox was filled.”

Alexander treads with caution when using social media in general. “I find when it’s anything of substance, it creates controversy where I don’t intend controversy,” he said.

The Seinfeld reunion had been imagined for years before it happened, Alexander said, but the cast had always said no. He didn’t think anybody had “an idea good enough to merit doing it.”

“We’re all 12 years older,” he said. “What was kind of acceptable and quasi-adorable then would just look pathetic now.” He saw the potential for it being bad as greater than the potential for it being good. But they were put back together, on the same set with all the same extras in place, and “it turned out really beautifully.”

Alexander said he was thrilled to have been asked to come to UVU. “I have been so impressed not only with the students I have been able to work with, but this whole community. … Everybody has just been lovely and wonderful, and I have to say it has been a delight to be in Utah and to be at UVU, the newest and potentially the finest university!”

The people who came to the “Evening with Jason Alexander” were happy with it. Hugh Pinnock, a sophomore at BYU studying advertising, said he grew up watching every single episode of "Seinfeld." “I really love the characters in the show and wanted to come see (Alexander) in the flesh.”

When Alexander was working with the student on the monologue, Pinnock observed that he was a powerful teacher in acting and that his lessons could be applied to other areas of life. “He pushed him and wasn’t afraid to back down. It’s something I can relate to. I’m a teacher at the MTC. That can help missionaries see how real what they’re doing is. It’s not something you can just wing; it’s something that’s real.”

Kevin Wilder, a sophomore at UVU studying creative writing, is also a "Seinfeld" fan. He liked seeing Alexander’s versatility, and that he was “not puffed up like a big Hollywood actor.” Wilder was also intrigued by what an influence the actors have on the success of a script, as with “Seinfeld.” “It’s not all the writing, it takes the acting as well,” he said.

Meg Barber, a senior at BYU majoring in American studies, was the first student to arrive for the event. She came to the Sorensen center fives hours before Alexander arrived to be sure to get the best seat and to ask Alexander about his hair. “I was wondering why no one asked and I was curious.” Her favorite part of the presentation was the monologue workshop, which she said reminded her why she loves acting so much, though it’s been years since she acted. As for Alexander, she said, “I love how personable he was. We get caught up with people in Hollywood, thinking they’re untouchable. But then we realize they’re real people, too."

Email: rbrutsch@desnews.com

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