Remick and Ray Interviewed Zack Hoffman between May 1 and June 15th, 2014
R&R—Thanks for agreeing to sit down with us for this interview, Zack. Let’s get right to it—you’ve been onstage, in film, and on TV. How did you get started acting?
ZH: I’ve always wanted to be anyone but me and I thought acting was going to give me that opportunity. Of course I was wrong. At first it was an attempt to get attention and then after years it became a craft. I took some classes in High School and then in College but it never really clicked for me. I found my way to the Speech department in college, then radio and then back to acting after I left school. One night friends took me to see “The Committee” at the Tiffany theatre on Sunset Blvd in Hollywood. It was the first improv troupe I had ever seen. I fell in love with acting style and within a year I was taking classes and performing with Kent Skov and the LA Connection.
R&R—Of all your roles which one strikes closest to home?
ZH: There has to be part of you in every character you play. If I really have to choose I would have to say it’s the one I wrote. That would be lounge singer Nick Sands in “Tuxedo Man”. I get to take the audience and myself for an emotional ride. There are other characters I really loved playing. Early as an actor I got the opportunity to play the character of Humphrey Bogart in Woody Allen’s “Play it Again Sam”. I’d been doing impressions since the age of nine, so to be able to flesh one out and make him a character instead of just a vocal impression was fun and challenging. Bogie is usually short so I got the role because they went against type. Things I loved about the character in the play are that he is a mentor, a friend and always rooting for the underdog. Those are qualities I strive to have even though I may fall short at times.
R&R– You say that the character you played is a mentor. Who were your mentors?
ZH: I have been lucky to have had some amazing teachers come into my life. I think that a mentor is different. One name stands out for me. Marty Taras. I went to LA Valley College and he was the head of the Speech department. I was taking a class called “Oral Interpretation of Literature” and Marty came to my final and recruited me for the Forensic Team. I was a member of the debate team, did three individual events, won a number of awards and went to the National Championships twice. Marty saw the raw talent in me and he was the one person who said to me, “Yes you can.” He always gave me good advice. I didn’t always take it but he gave me room to make my own mistakes. Our friendship lasted long after college. I left LA and went to Israel for a year, when I got back to Los Angeles I was floundering, it was Marty who cast me in a play and got me back on track again. The reason I turned pro and was able to make a living at this crazy wonderful creative craft of ours was that I got the support and wisdom of Marty. I will always be grateful for his presence in my life.
R&R—You practice timed writing with the group at Louisa’s Café. How long have you been doing that?
ZH: I think I have been coming about 8 years. Not always consistently but I try to get there twice a week and write with my fellow writers. I like writing with purpose but will come empty and pour that on to the pages. As the pen moves something usually turns up.
R&R—Before you got into the groove at Louisa’s where you write by hand under the clock, how did you get the words down?
ZH: I have always written long hand. Something about pen to paper. Maybe the noise of the typing keys distracted me. And something mind freeing when you are flowing ink. My first venture into writing was poetry. I wanted to be Leonard Cohen. Eventually being Zack made the poetry better. Then I branched out to comedy writing. I read the newspaper every day. I would seek out the stories worthy of satire or that I saw humor in. I was working with the LA Connection at the time. I would write a sketch based on what was current. I would bring it to my improv group and go from there. Sometimes I would get the thumbs up and sometimes it just wouldn’t work out. But it was great practice. In the early nineties I read Natalie Goldberg’s “Writing Down the Bones” and it helped me. There is a certain freedom to be able to write the “compost” and then go back and perhaps find some gems in the re-write. I was working with Douglas Gray on “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” and we talked about writing one evening. I mentioned Natalie Goldberg’s work and he smiled and told me about Bob and Jack at Louisa’s and how their writing practice was based on her work. I showed up and it’s been a real gift.
R&R—How has your Jewish background influenced your writing?
ZH: It’s my DNA. I believe Judaism is more than a religion. It’s cultural, even tribal. I struggle with my religion. At times I am deeply connected to the words and rituals, and then I seek other ideas, other spiritual nourishment. But no matter what I do or where I go I will always be Jewish, and have a Jewish identity. It’s like the joke that Groucho Marx told about two writers, Stan and Phil walking down 42nd street in New York City. One of the writers, Stan, was a hunchback. They passed a synagogue and Phil turned to Stan and said, “You know I used to be a Jew.” To which Stan replied, “I used to be a hunchback.”
R&R—Okay. So you have a role or a character in your head. Do you ever improvise on the spot when you’re in character—if you do, where does the newness spring from?
ZH: I am not sure if I can explain it but the words should be in your head and the character should be in your body. One of the people who really helped me develop as an actor is Gary Austin. When he was coaching he would always be saying “breathe…breathe” so you can connect with the character inside of you. Once the lights come up and you walk out on stage it should all be about breathing and being. The words should flow out. Good nights for me are when the final blackout is cued, the lights come up and I think to myself “what happened?” I was immersed and that’s where the newness comes from.
R&R—We’re supposed to learn from our mistakes. If you’re in a role and you make a “mistake” are you aware of it? How do you feel about that and the next time you perform the role how much of your “mistake” remains? Is the improv ever better than the original? If so how?
ZH: I make mistakes all the time. You just have to keep going. The audience doesn’t know you have made a mistake and I intend to keep it that way. There is no stopping live theatre for a “do over”. If I go up on my lines I just move and breathe and trust that a line will come to me. I love the analogy of Chinese characters. In Chinese writing letter is drawn, but there is a small flaw in each one. No two characters are ever exactly the same. No two performances are ever the same. Cues are missed. Lines are dropped. Props are misplaced. Sets are stuck and don’t move into place. Audience members are sometimes disruptive. Welcome to live theatre. In the moment the improv works great but the goal is always to paint the complete characater. Say all the lines just as the writer had intended.
R&R—Do you ever think about archetypes when you’re preparing a role or writing for a character in your novel or your one man plays?
ZH: Yes, archetypes are very important. I read a great book by Carolyn Myss called “Sacred Contracts”. The book lists a number of archetypes. Talks about how certain archetypes dominate the personality. What I found most interesting is her philosophy that all of us share four archetypes which are: the victim, the child, the prostitute and the saboteur. Which to me says that all of my characters are not one thing, but multifaceted. It helps me to remember to write in three dimensions.
R&R—Of the forms of writing—one man play or novel—which is challenging you the most?
ZH: Since I am writing a novel right now, the form of the novel is the most challenging. I was writing an interactive play a year ago and if you would have asked me then it certainly would have been most challenging. I write slow, so reaching the finish line on any project is a big deal.
R&R—What is a script? Why not just improvise the hell out of things and let it go at that?
ZH: Trust me, if I could I would. I remember struggling with “Tuxedo Man” trying to find its soul. One day I asked for help. My question was “Where is the Arc?” Arcs are not improvised, they are built. Humor has to be set up. In “Tuxedo Man” I tell a story early in act one which gets a couple of laughs, but the payoff comes in act three when I callback the punchline. Boom. It kills. That had to be written, that had to be honoring the journey that not only my character is taking but the journey the audience is taking with me.
R&R—What does a script mean to you as an actor?
ZH: As an actor I have been given a script to bring life to the writer’s vision. The writer and the director have the vision. They can duke it out over what works and what doesn’t. I am there to walk up on stage and present their vision.
R&R—What do you believe when you are in a role—your own emotions or the emotions the writer wants you to pull out of the character?
ZH: You need to find something to hook on to so they match up. I can only be the Zack version of whatever character I’m doing. Look at how many different people have done Hamlet or Willie Loman from Death of a Salesman or Scrooge. They bring the emotional “them” to the role.
R&R—One time you wrote with us at Louisa’s and you told a story about going to synagogue after a long absence because you wanted to reconnect with those wise old men you remembered finding there. But then you realized that you are now the wise old guy at synagogue. How does that insight shape your writing now?
ZH: To be honest I am not sure I used the word “wise”. I walked into a synagogue one night and looked around at all the families. A whole new generation of young Jewish people looking for a connection to God and to their heritage. I said to myself, “Where are all the old Jews?” Then I saw some balding guys in Birkenstock sandals and hippie women with long grey hair and flowing dresses. It was then I realized it was me! I was the old Jew in the temple. Yet another awakening. Some of the aspects of Judaism challenge me. At times a great struggle. I asked my Rabbi one time, “Why if it’s so hard do I keep coming back?” and he said “Because it’s Tribal.”
I like being part of that tribe.
R&R—Thanks, Zack. This has been a lot of fun.