There is no way to introduce this guest except to say that if you are not yet listening to her podcast, Little Known Facts, you need to start now. Ilana Levine is doing some of the most in-depth, intimate interviews out there. Her guests have included Cynthia Nixon, Ben Platt, Julianne Moore, Kristin Chenoweth, Edie Falco, Matthew Broderick, and Andy Cohen, among many. She has such a comfort and familiarity with her them that you cannot distinguish her old friends from the people she just met when they walked in the studio moments before. In addition to this new venture, Levine has a notable film and theater career, including stints on the Broadway stage in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and Wrong Mountain.
In our discussion, we talk about audition anxiety, the thrill of live theater, the fun of playing opposite Kristin Chenoweth, what makes a good interview, and how a haircut changed her life.
When did you first know that you wanted to be an actor?
It was in college. I started out with just wanting to go to a liberal arts school and wanting to try everything. I thought the world of advertising was interesting. The summer between a gap year that I took after school and right before I was going to start university, I had been in Israel for a year after I had finished high school. It’s kind of a romantic and a silly story that touches upon a lot of things that make me who I am. I went to get a haircut. There was a really handsome person cutting my hair. When I came home from kibbutz [communal living in Israel] life, I probably had not had a haircut in a year. He was really handsome and he had a book of a play at his station. I think to be flirty, to be completely honest, I started reading it out loud and asked, “What is this?” He said, “Oh, I’m in an acting class and I’m working on a scene. You should come.” And because I thought he was very handsome, I went with him. I ended up being introduced to that world. I was not a kid who had acted in student plays or had always the theater bug. Although my family had always gone to the theater, that was how we celebrated because we lived in such close proximity to Manhattan, I grew up in New Jersey. That night I was introduced to a teacher named Gloria Maddox at a New York City acting studio called the Terry Schreiber Studio. I had one of those experiences where if it were a movie, the music would swell into some kind of huge orchestra. I hadn’t known I didn’t know where my people were and there they all were in this room. It really changed the trajectory of my life in so many ways, in particular my career path. I ended up spending the summer studying at that acting studio, I really fell in love with Gloria as a person, a mentor and a teacher. I ended up switching to a theater program in college. It was all because of a sweet, flirty moment when I was 18 years old getting my hair cut in Teaneck, New Jersey.
So a cute guy is what led you to theater?
If we distill it down to what unlocked this whole thing, yeah, it was the art of the flirt.
Once you found it, what kept you engaged in acting as a career?
I was always interested in exploring other people’s lives, they always seemed more fascinating than mine. I love learning about history through characters. Part of why I have been so happy doing this podcast [Little Known Facts], which has been such a happy side bar in my life, is that I’m so curious about people. I could have easily entered into the world of psychology or journalism, where you really get to invest in somebody’s heart and soul and help them to engage in their life circumstances in a better way. With acting, I love the thrill of when something that seems so hard to understand or unlock suddenly makes sense to you.
You mentioned that you grew up in Jersey and for special events and occasions you would come to see a show. What was the first show you saw on Broadway?
The first show that I remember seeing on Broadway was A Chorus Line. I was really young. My mother was an avid theater-lover, I don’t even think she meant to take me. Whoever she was meant to go with couldn’t go and she was not one to waste a ticket. So probably after she went through her entire Hadassah group [a Jewish organization], she ended up taking me. She didn’t know what it was about, at all. She was just going to see a musical about people who were in musicals. Very quickly she was dying that she had this little person next to her. As the story goes, apocryphal or not, during the intermission I turned to her and said, “Mommy, can I ask you something?” She looked panicked before I asked her, “What’s a resume?” My question was not about the anatomy [referring to a song in the show that has a lyric about ‘tits and ass”] or sexual preferences, it was “What’s a resume?” And we were off! Even now, my kids are the children of theater performers and lovers. I remember when we were way too young we went to a summer stock, non-Equity production of A Chorus Line. My greatest joy as a mom was when my son was five years old, I heard him in the bathroom singing, “I really need this job” [from A Chorus Line]. I thought, I’ve done it, if I do nothing else.
Do you get performance anxiety? How do you manage that? How do you keep enough of it to have a performance edge?
Over the years, it’s kind of changed and ebbed and flowed in different ways. I was just saying to someone recently that my body physically has all of these feelings about auditions. I was thinking about how even if I am reading for something that doesn’t feel like a game-changer or even necessarily like something I would do if I got it, my body reacts exactly the same way. Whether it would be a movie starring opposite Tom Hanks or three lines on an episode of Law & Order: SVU, my stomach immediately goes into some kind of crazy response. I stop eating from that morning until after the audition. I think it’s really interesting how there is a sense memory or an emotional recall to some level of nervousness, even if it’s not something that I have any relationship with in terms of it being important in terms of the future of my career. I think if you do something long enough you know to not let these things stop you from doing it. I know that even though it may be very hard to cross the threshold between backstage and onstage, once I do it, I know I’m going to be okay because I have enough experience. I’ve never blacked out, I’ve never run off the stage, I’ve never run off the other side of the stage and out of the window back home. I talk to myself the way I would talk to a child. I literally have conversations with myself where I am comforting myself and reminding myself, “You know what, sweetie, you’ve done this before and I know you feel scared. But I promise you if you just walk onstage that the lines will be in your head.” Truly the most important thing, and I imagine this is true no matter what career you pursue, is that if you are as prepared as you can possibly be, whether you are public speaking or performing on a Broadway stage or a film set or presenting in an office to your co-workers, one can rest assured that if you have done all of the preparation that you need to do, no matter how anxious or nervous you are, it will still come through. In spite of whatever you are going through, the dry mouth or the heart palpitations or the stomachache, that you just have to trust that the work is there. When you put your attention on somebody else and not worry about yourself, but just the very simple act of listening takes all of your focus off yourself. It sounds so obvious that “acting is about reacting” but it really is, it’s about listening. I have found that to really be true in all sorts of circumstances, not just performing. When you are being of service, whether you are volunteering at a coat drive or helping someone cross the stress or being of service to the play, when it is no longer about you, it is much easier.
When I was testing for television shows a lot during pilot season and would go screen test, right before I walked in the room with seven thousand studio execs, I would pretend I was on a late night show and that the host was asking me to describe what happens in the movie. I would trick my mind that it’s not that I was auditioning for the job, it’s that I already had the job. We all come up with things that sound ridiculous when you say them out loud to another human being, ways to trick ourselves into not feeling vulnerable. It takes a long time in this profession to feel like you’re a colleague when you walk in a room. The minute you see a host of people sitting behind a table and you’re on the other side of the table by yourself, your equilibrium is off.
That must be necessary to have those tricks because you are the product, it’s not in human nature to deal constantly with being that vulnerable.
Yes and it’s exhausting. I remember a teacher I had telling me to just think of it as an opportunity to act on a Thursday. But what I feel like I am doing is begging people to let me act on a Thursday.
And your stomach still reacts and knows better.
IL: My stomach is having fun with these people at 2:00 on a Thursday. We know you’re auditioning for them. We know that this paycheck really makes the difference in terms of quitting your waitressing job. I’m not a dummy!
You played Lucy in that wonderful 1999 revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown. It’s quite a feat for an adult actor to convincingly play a child. You all successfully achieved it in that production. Can you talk about the challenge of giving an honest portrayal of a young person and accessing your inner child?
It all starts with writing. The beauty of Charles Shulz and the world he created is that all of those characters were dealing with adult neuroses in their very little bodies. I think that Lucy Van Pelt would be the same person at 40 years old that she was at 7 years old. I think part of the fun and the humor of that, thanks to director Michael Mayer for helping us finesse these characters, was a combination of letting the costumes and the saddles shoes and the sets do a lot of the work. David Gallo was our set designer and he created everything to be big so that we were dwarfed by the scenery. The production values actually allowed us to worry about that very little. Also really thinking about ways in which children just don’t have a sensor. It’s all the same stuff that we feel, think and do with a veil and an idea of what’s appropriate. Imagine if you didn’t have a sensor, you could say and feel everything without a delay.
The fun of it was reacting to the people around us. Kristin [Chenoweth, who played Sally] has the greatest voice on the planet and she’s teeny tiny and a youthful voice. Watching and listening to Kristin did a lot of work for us, too.
I remember people would come to the stage door and say, “Oh, my daughter is such a Lucy.” They are these iconic characters; Charlie Brown is the loser, Schroeder is the artist/dreamer, Sally the hopeless romantic, and Lucy really bossy. I remember when people would say, “My daughter is such a Lucy”, I would respond, “You mean really strong, a feminist, someone who stood up for what she believed in” and tried to change the conversation and the projection of saying what you think and feel as being a negative. Being adorable is not negated by saying how you feel. The truth is, Lucy was right! Charlie Brown was always getting in his own way and it was impossible time after time to not just pull the football away from him because it was just impossible that he was setting us up again. She just couldn’t take it. She had given him the best advice, he never took it and at a certain point she just had to clock him.
What do you love about live theater?
I will speak to this as an audience member because I am that as often as I am a performer. I have so much respect for actors, for what they are putting themselves through for the sake of this written material that they are being asked to perform. I think it’s really brave and I feel honored to be in the presence of it. It’s a very old tradition, this story telling. There is this idea that we are connected now more than ever because of the internet but I think it’s keeping all of us from being face to face with each other. Having a community experience is a very beautiful thing.
I love the rituals of being in a play. I love my personal rituals. I love the company rituals of being part of a performance. The idea of going through something live and in real time, that is very spontaneous and it doesn’t always go the way you think it’s going to go and you get a chance to do it again the next day if you don’t hit it exactly the way you want it. No two shows are alike because no two audiences are alike. For someone who loves community and loves to share in experiences, live theater is a really extraordinary experience to be part of, on either side of the curtain.
What led you to create your podcast, Little Known Facts?
I listen to podcasts and I really love that very intimate experience of having someone in your ears in that way. In my career I have done a lot of voice-over and have always loved the quiet and intimacy of a recording studio. I had said to Dominic, my husband, that I was really interested in saying “yes” to new things. A friend of mine coincidentally had absorbed a podcast company into their suite of offices. He had been watching the way the content was made there and said to me, “I’ve been watching how it works and I feel that you would be really great at it.” So I thought, “I’m just going to say ‘yes’” because my instinct was, “I’m not going to do a podcast, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.” I can barely download them onto my phone! I thought that I’m just going to start before I know what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll never air them, maybe I will. I just started. John Slattery came in, he’s a dear friend and he happens to be super well-known. When we were done that very first episode he gave me a really lovely compliment. He said, “I feel like I came in here and there was so much room for me to just be myself. You steered the conversation in all of these directions that were completely unexpected but I always felt taken care of. I really wanted to go there with you.” And so it was born. It’s hard to get the first but when one person comes in, everyone comes in. I found that I really love talking to people, I really love getting to know them deeply. There is something to being in this small, cozy booth with headphones on that allows us, even with people I know really well, to just talk in a way that we probably wouldn’t have made space for in our daily lives.
What has been really rewarding about the podcast is that all of these guests share a common thread, which is that there was a lot of time during which no one wanted to hire them. And for all of us, how do you stick with it through the struggle when everyone is saying “no”. What is it that allows us to love something so much and want to do it so badly that we stick with it through those very hard times? It’s inspiring to hear that all of these people went through that. They are just like us, not because they shop at Whole Foods with their babies. They are just like us because they are human beings who have suffered and struggled, who have had great joys and great losses and have been able to persevere through it all. That’s inspiring to me.
There are many similarities between what you do as an interviewer and what I do as a clinical psychologist, most notably the active listening. As an interviewer, what role do you think active listening plays?
If I’m listening and I’m really looking at you and I’m really taking you in, with great specificity, that person feels heard, they feel seen literally, and there is something that relaxes in them. At the beginning of my doing this I felt that I had to use verbal cues a lot which was a drag in editing because I had to edit out a lot of “um’s” and “yes’s” and “rights”. I’ve learned that nodding is enough, as opposed to verbal cues, which would work fine in therapy but doesn’t work great in audio. Really looking someone in the eyes and really saying with my body language, and sometimes with verbal cues, “I hear you. I’m listening to you. I really care about what you’re saying. I have zero agenda. I’m not looking to do anything but listen and share whatever you have to say.” I’m really learning how little I have to say and how much it has to be authentic.
That authenticity comes across abundantly. The protective veil that is present in most other interviews is peeled away on Levine’s podcast because of her ability to be so present with her guests. You can listen and subscribe to Little Known Facts at https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/little-known-facts-with-ilana-levine/id1114174900?mt=2.