Published on June 29th, 2019 | by Biz Books
The Biz Interview: Lee Michael Cohn
An industry veteran in the areas of acting, writing, directing producing, and coaching, Lee Michael Cohn is familiar to us as the co-author of A Practical Handbook for the Actor along with Melissa Bruder, Madeleine Olnek, Nathaniel Pollack, Robert Previto, and Scott Zigler.
We had the chance to speak with Lee Michael Cohn just before his recent trip to Vancouver to host a Practical Aesthetics workshop!
Can you start by telling us a little bit about your background in the acting, writing, directing, and producing and how you got started?
I started acting professionally as a founding member of the Atlantic Theater Company, which came out of a series of acting workshops given by David Mamet through the NYU Theatre department. A bunch of NYU Drama students ended up spending several summers up in Vermont where David had a house doing acting workshops, and thus a theatre company was born.
I started teaching in my mid 20s after the publication of the acting book. I always seemed to have a knack for it, and it was a great alternative to the usual grunt jobs that actors endure, and I was named an Associate Professor at NYU/SCPS before I was 30. I gradually moved into writing and directing – I was one of 25 writers out of 800 applicants accepted into the Warner Bros Comedy Writers Workshop, and as a finalist for the Disney Fellowship. So my ex-wife and I decided to move the family to L.A. so I could pursue those opportunities.
In terms of producing, many years ago a producer I was writing a film for asked me to become his business partner. I said yes, and learned on the job. So much of my career success seems to be the result of happy accidents!
You’ll be in Vancouver this month for a workshop about Practical Aesthetics. For actors who are new to this technique, how would you summarize it?
It’s a technique that reduces acting to its most essential and elemental parts, and dispenses with the nonsense that has vexed actors for generations. It’s basis is in action, not emotion; it also emphasizes truthful moment-to-moment acting, devoid of preconceptions. A great emphasis is also placed on scene analysis so the actor learns to make choices that are dynamic, personal, connects them to the other actors in the scene, and fulfills the intentions of the dramatist.
What else can actors expect from this workshop?
A basic grounding in the fundamental principles of Practical Aesthetics. Mastery is not possible in a single weekend, but the actors will definitely take away some very useful tools that they can begin to immediately employ in their work!
You’ve participated in so many different creative mediums (acting, writing, directing, producing, coaching). What is challenging and fulfilling about each of these?
I think, in an ideal universe, each discipline is shooting at the same target: to delight an audience by telling a story simply and truthfully. But here’s my very subjective take on each:
Acting: The challenge is to always act truthfully. Period. For me, when I was an actor, there was a high I got from performing that was never replicated in any other activity. Ok, maybe one other…
Directing: I have always believed that great directing is, essentially, invisible. The director’s hand should not be in evidence, even in highly stylized genres such as farce or melodrama. If the directing is in evidence, then an audience’s attention will be drawn to the artifice, rather than the action of the play. When all of the audience’s attention is on the story and the actors, then the director has done a good job.
Teaching: It’s very simple: when your students grow, it’s incredibly gratifying. Then you can take credit for their success when they become big stars. 😉 What’s frustrating is when the students do not put in the work. You can only get better at acting by practicing. A lot.
Producing: Well, running around chasing funding for your film can be really crazy-making, especially in Hollywood where people tend to talk a big game and not deliver. What’s satisfying is seeing the project come to fruition, and helping everyone else flourish in their jobs. I also have a great relationship with the company I work with in Hollywood (RiverRock Films), so I do have a good deal of creative input.
Writing: The most satisfying thing is having something you wrote actually get produced! Also, hearing an audience laugh at your stuff is pretty darn great.
What’s the most important lesson that you’ve learned in your career so far?
To have lots of employable skills! LOL. Also to stay open to what life throws on your radar. I NEVER thought of myself as a producer, but I said “yes” to the opportunity, and good things followed. If you really want to do something you don’t know how to do, say “yes” and then figure it out. Unless it’s flying a jet airliner…or doing a heart transplant. Maybe say “no” to those.
You’re well-known as the co-author of A Practical Handbook for the Actor, which has been influential in the careers of countless actors. Are there any authors and books that have been influential in yours?
David Mamet was, not surprisingly, a huge influence, both in his creative work and his intellectual writings. But for me, I have a lot of influences that go beyond the theatre – I’m attracted to writers who push boundaries and speak truth to power. I also seem to like a touch of madness as well. Hunter S Thompson – when he was on top of his game – is probably my favorite writer. I also think that dramatists can learn a lot from detective novels – the crime story is great baseline for drama: the hero must penetrate to the heart of a mystery and find the truth at all costs. Ian Fleming, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, Ross MacDonald, Tony Hillerman all taught me a lot.
What are some of your current projects these days?
I wrote a feature film for RiverRock that I will produce along with a few other of their properties, hopefully sometime next year. I optioned a few TV pilots that went nowhere lol. I’m attached as a staff writer/producer on an action/adventure TV series set in feudal Japan – that will be great fun if it gets picked up. I’m also funding two feature films I’m slated to direct. Doing a bit of teaching as well in L.A. Again, employable skills!
Where can we find out more about you?
LMCohn.com. Or call me and have a chat! 😉
Thanks to Lee Michael Cohn for speaking with us!