YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Professor Alexander

USC's new faculty member teaches actors how to work hard, not how to get ahead.

November 17, 2002|Diane Haithman | Times Staff Writer

More than a few of the star-struck USC undergraduates lucky enough to be admitted to Theatre 397 came to class expecting to be handed the keys to the entertainment industry.

Instead, Jason Alexander -- in residence this term at USC as the School of Theatre's first George Burns Visiting Professor -- handed them a challenge.

"I made it very clear to them the very first day: I don't hold the keys to the industry; I don't know anybody who does," Alexander said in a recent conversation before class. "The only thing that will virtually ensure your success is if you are undeniably good."

Undeniably ... what?

Here they are on the USC campus, achingly eager and impossibly young, coming from all over the country to study acting just a few freeway exits from the glittering gated lots of Paramount, Universal and Warner Bros. They know a little bit about Hollywood -- or think they do. It's an image pieced together from the media, the movies, maybe from their friends.

It's all about looks here; it's all about luck. It's a town of connections; relationships. And what a shame, too, as you were just saying to your new best friend in the industry, Jason Alexander.

That was the fantasy. But now, here is your new best friend in the industry, standing before you in the modest classroom, telling you it's not who you know, but what you know?

Maybe what you've signed up for is not Hollywood Connections 101, but just what it says on the syllabus: "Practical Technique and Material Development," four weighty words that imply hard work. Friday's class is Practical Acting Technique for Singers -- the same grueling process set to music.

"Time after time, they see 'personalities' spawn into acting careers or looks spawn into careers," Alexander observes with an empathetic smile. "There's a huge abundance of very limited talent doing very well. So it's hard to say to them: 'Work hard, work hard,' when he ain't workin' hard, and he's making 50 grand a week."

Alexander is not referring to himself. While cracking jokes on "Seinfeld," this dedicated actor was also attending classes with acting coach Larry Moss, sometimes far into the night. (That's also someone else's salary: By the end of "Seinfeld," he and the non-Jerry cast members were pulling down $600,000 per episode.)

But Alexander knows the question students will eventually ask him. "I say look, if you are looking for my career, good luck, I can't tell you how to get it," he says. "I stepped in the right puddle. Nobody thought 'Seinfeld' would be ... 'Seinfeld.' "

Before a class early in the term, a student rushes up to Alexander, worried because this student will be absent for an event planned for later in the year: As a final project of sorts, students will have the chance to perform before an invited audience of agents, actors, directors -- Alexander's very good friends in the industry.

"Not that I'm just here to get an agent and move on, but ..." the student begins, interrupting himself with a burst of sheepish laughter.

Don't worry, Alexander reassures him. "The people I invite aren't going to turn around and launch anybody's career."

The student turns and walks away. Hard to tell whether the look on his face is relief or disappointment.

Juggling two jobs

There are two lunch reservations for Alexander on today's list at the USC Faculty Club. Both are for 12:30 p.m. Alexander raises an eyebrow. He weighs his options. "I'll take the 12:30," he says brightly.

It's a scene straight out of "Seinfeld," that comedy about nothing. But the double commitment seems oddly appropriate. For the next few months, Alexander will enjoy a dual identity: as a working actor soon to star as Max Bialystock in the Los Angeles production of "The Producers," and as USC faculty member.

In an hour or so, Alexander will trek across campus to the unassuming white building called the Drama Center to hold office hours before class. Right now, he's fascinated that Faculty Club lunch tables bear cups of crayons, so brilliant academic minds can doodle on the paper table covers. "What if e doesn't equal mc2? It could be discovered right here," Alexander marvels, busily working on his own crayon sketch of a man's face. After "Seinfeld," Alexander says, everyone expects him to be as funny as his character, George Costanza. He says he's not. He is. But Alexander is dead serious about his new responsibility: teaching college students to become better actors.

You can, he asserts, teach acting. "For my money, every time someone walks out the door, they are acting -- they are not, on the outside, the same way they are on the inside," he says. "We are always unconsciously defining who we are talking to, and what we want from them, and what might potentially get in the way.

Los Angeles Times Articles