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LAist Interview: Jeffrey Tambor of Arrested Development

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Jeffrey Tambor leads his workshop last year at SXSW. | Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Tambor

For most people reading this, Jeffrey Tambor has always been a part of your consciousness. My first exposure was way back in the day when I -- then a huge fan of Three's Company -- religiously tuned into The Ropers for every episode of its short run. Tambor went from frequent guest-star to (for me) cultural icon when he originated one of TV's greatest roles -- that of "Hey Now" Hank Kingsley on The Larry Sanders Show. That he would later go on to originate yet another iconic role(s) -- George Sr./Oscar in Arrested Development -- is almost a miracle.

Since its cancellation, there have been rumors of an Arrested Development movie and it now appears those rumors are true. Until that gets rolling, though, Jeffrey is staying busy acting, teaching and -- on March 21st -- leading his workshop, "What's Keeping You?" at AFI. A long-time teacher, Tambor's workshop is for actors, writers, directors -- really anyone who feels they're stuck in their life. If that sounds like you, I'd suggest giving it a shot. I recently had a chance to talk with Jeffrey about that and many other things in a wide-ranging chat.

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LAist: How often do people give you a "Hey Now" on the street?

Jeffrey Tambor: I do get that. A lot. My friend, Howard Stern, has it on every other ten seconds on his show. I laid it down in an interview ten to twelve years ago. I had no idea it was going to be used to this degree, but I'm honored. And he always says nice things about me so...onward. Here, I don't get it a lot. It's more east coast than here. People like "Hey Now". People liked Hank for some reason. It's fun. He's singular.

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I didn't do anything wrong! Well, maybe I did. | Photo courtesy of Fox

LAist: He was a great, hateful man.

Jeffrey: Do you think he was hateful? Now that's interesting. He's a great Rorschach, I find, because sometimes he's called a buffoon; sometimes he's called a wise guy. It all depends on who's talking.

LAist: Yeah, I did love Hank. All of the characters on that show had this underbelly that was so exposed to the audience. And you sympathize with that even though some of the behavior was less than admirable.

Jeffrey: That was the real genius of that show. It wasn't about jokes. It was about -- there's an old adage. Actually, I don't know if it's an old adage. Maybe I'm just making it up. But people are ridiculous and that was the basis of that show. I remember one day I really lost my manners with a PA, and I felt really bad about it and went up and apologized. I told Rip [Torn] about it and he said, "Maybe you should add that to the character." And so we did! We showed the dark side of all of us which is good. Which is funny.

LAist: Let's talk about the workshop you're conducting. It's called, "What's Keeping You?"

Jeffrey: It's a workshop about personal and professional success. It's really for actors and writers and directors. Or really anybody who has a dream and has sort of lost that dream and wants to get back to it. It's an all-day event. It's interactive. It's personal. It's gonna be fun. It's pretty down and dirty-honest which I love. I've done this at SXSW. I've just finished doing it at Florida State University and at DreamWorks, and people seem to love it. What's keeping you from your dreams? What's keeping you from bringing all of yourself to the table? What's keeping you from embracing -- and this sounds a little hoity-toity -- your true voice. And things happen when you get out here to Los Angeles. Some people lose their edge a little bit. I was talking to an actor the other day, and I said, "What's with you?" He's very unhappy. He's from New York and kind of an edgy, wonderful guy. He said that he'd been advised to lose his edge, and I think that's bad advice. I think that's kind of the enemy a little bit. We always ask, "What do they want" instead of "What do I want?"

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LAist: Do you think there are common ways in which people put too much energy in one direction and not enough energy in the right direction?

Jeffrey: I do find that once the dollar sign gets in the quotient, things happen. It's a law of physics that something observed changes.

LAist: The Uncertainty Principle [or observer effect].

Jeffrey: Yeah, well it's true of actors, too. And artists. Once the eyes get on you, the person has a tendency to change. I know that I did. I know I went, "Uh-oh. I'm changing. I know it."

LAist: You're an actor and you're also an acting teacher. How do you view your life in terms of those two roles?

Jeffrey: I think I need both in my life. I sometimes say I'm gonna quit acting and just teach, but I do love it. I like that ignition point. I like the Flying Wollensky part of it up on the high-wire. It is rather nice. And when I teach, I'm in the class, too. I take the class as well in so many ways. I don't teach from on-high as if I know everything. Every scene and every actor is a different problem. It's really exciting. I'm very excited by the ignition point. Where something becomes another thing. That's why I watch the Food Channel. For that moment when it all comes together. It either works or it doesn't. That's the first thing that drew me to theater.

LAist: The whole is more than the sum of its parts.

Jeffrey: Absolutely! It's what attracts me to it. In live theater it's so exciting because then you add the audience. And I do love theater. I still more comfortable doing theater than any other form.

LAist: What's your process as an actor? Between first getting the script and actually performing. How are you building the character? Are you basing it on anything? Does it come from the director? Does it come from the writer? Do you have a process that's specific or is it unique every time?

Jeffrey: It's unique every time. And you don't want to get dogmatic about how you work. I believe in hard work, but I also believe in that moment when you're walking around and all of a sudden it's just, "Where did that idea come from?" I love that about acting. It changes every time.

LAist: Do you have a preference? Do you have an environment in which you like to work?

Jeffrey: That's a really interesting question. The first thing that draws me is always the role.

LAist: Do the roles stay with you? Do you miss characters that you once played? Do you miss the chance that you won't be able to do this anymore?

Jeffrey: Yeah, you fall in love with the character and the whole experience. There are some that you hope you never see again. But I miss Hank. I miss him very much. Hank was very, very real to me. I mean, we happened to each other at the exact right time in our lives. He was forty-five years old; I was forty-five years old. He was very, very, very real to me. And that was a real turning point in my acting life.

LAist: Let's talk about the idea of coming back to a character. There have been a lot of rumors about an Arrested Development movie. It sounds like it's going to happen. Is there anything you can share about that?

Jeffrey: I can be no more specific than this: I'm really excited. I'm happy to say that I think it's going forward. I think it has a bigger audience than ever. I was in Russia recently and a man came up to me and said -- and I'm not quite sure what he was saying -- but there was a Georgi Sr. in there somewhere. It's nice. It'll be cool.

LAist: How did you feel about playing George and Oscar?

Jeffrey: Loved it. Loved it. There's a great story about Oscar. He was really born because of a wonderful, serendipitous moment that was really the hallmark of Mitch Hurwitz and that crew. One day I was having my wig fit for George Sr. because we did earlier scenes where he had hair. And my wig was the worst! When it was uncut and uncoiffed it would hang to my shoulders. And so I had to go out to the deck of the make-up room and look up at the writer's room. Mitch wanted to look at the wig. And then all of sudden he said, "Hold it right there!" And he summoned a few writers out to look. I go back into the make-up room and the next thing I know I'm looking at Oscar. We never cut the wig and Oscar was born.

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Jeffrey Tambor's workshop, "What's Keeping You?" is scheduled for Saturday, March 21st at the American Film Institute. More information can be found here.

Also, old episodes of The Larry Sanders Show can be found at Crackle while Arrested Development can be found at Hulu.