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Tony Shaloub: A Hollywood hyphenate who succeeds on screen and stage

The actor, writer, director and producer shines at USC event uniting students from two arts schools

actor Tony Shalhoub
Tony Shaloub is a “guy we all want to be,” says a USC professor. (Photo/Courtesy of CBS)

Tony Shaloub, a three-time Emmy Award winner for his role as the obsessive-compulsive police detective Monk, literally stepped into the spotlight at USC.

The acclaimed actor, who moves adeptly between screen and stage, appeared at a Spotlight@SDA program in January.

Spotlight@SDA, a series of events sponsored by the USC School of Dramatic Arts, brings industry figures to campus for interviews, master classes and other interactions. Besides Shalhoub, the school welcomed playwright, actor and director Dakin Matthews, actor Bryan Cranston and writer-producer Vince Gilligan during the first three weeks of the spring semester.

The event served as a mixer for students at the USC School for Dramatic Arts and the USC School for Cinematic Arts.

Interim Dramatic Arts Dean David Bridel welcomed students from both schools by giving a shout-out to his collaborators on the event — the three SCA professors who run Comedy@SCA: Jack Epps, David Isaacs and Barnet Kellman.

Kellman,  a triple-threat director himself in television, film and stage, interviewed Shalhoub, who will play a senator in the CBS summer series BrainDead. Afterward, the stage was filled with food, drink, sofas and students from the two schools.

From Broadway to big and small screen

Shalhoub, who also won Screen Actors Guild and Golden Globe awards for his deft portrayal of detective Adrian Monk, has been fine in films ranging from Barton Fink to Men in Black and has had a long Broadway and off-Broadway career, including two recent Tony nominations.

“Tony moves seamlessly between theater, film and television,” Kellman said in his introduction. “He’s an actor, writer, director and producer on the film side. This is the guy we all want to be talking to. This is the guy we all want to be.”

The two became friends when Shalhoub married actress Brooke Adams, whom Kellman directed in A Question of Honor, a 1982 TV movie. Adams was in the audience at USC, as was Dramatic Arts Professor Andrei Belgrader, Shalhoub’s mentor when both were at the Yale School of Drama.

Shalhoub told the students that “some of the most difficult, maddening, frustrating, exhilarating and inspirational jobs I’ve had were experiences I had in the theater working with Andrei.

“He would draw out things we didn’t think we were capable of. Once we were able to trust him and trust ourselves, amazing and unforgettable things happened. It was terrifying, really terrifying. I remember how it was all about taking those kinds of risks. Those are the kinds of things I would encourage you to look for, to strive for.”

Riding the rollercoaster

Another piece of advice Shalhoub passed on was that life in the entertainment industry is always one of ups and downs.

Tony Shalhoub and students

Barnet Kellman with Shalhoub, center, surrounded by USC students (Photo/Nancy Mette)

“It always was a rollercoaster, and it will always be a rollercoaster,” he said.

Kellman objected mildly.

“I’ve known Tony a long time and as far as Tony’s concerned, it’s always his last job and he’s never going to work again. He’s probably one of the most working guys in town.”

Shalhoub demurred.

“It’s not true I haven’t stopped working. Even short periods of not working feel like an eternity because you never know when the next thing is going to be. Very few actors know three months, six months, a year in advance when they are going to be working.”

Answering questions from Kellman and students on a variety of subjects, Shalhoub was voluble and insightful.

On why he became a producer:

In his first foray into television, “I became aware that in the editing room, they were messing around with my timing. Not just mine, but all the actors, with our comedic timing. Sometimes you could enhance a joke or a timing, but more often, I was frustrated. We did this really well on the day that we shot it. This thing worked like gangbusters, it felt right. Then, when it hit the screen, it was kind of mistimed or it was a double or a triple and not a home run.”

So when he got the job on Monk, he asked and was allowed to be a producer.

“I was able to have some sway with the writing staff, and I was allowed in the editing room, which is really rare in television for an actor. It was a real education.”

Shalhoub said it was not only to protect himself as an actor, but “to keep the reins on what we felt the tone of the show should be. The problem in television is sometimes you are working with multiple directors; sometimes different editors are coming through, and you need a steady hand there.”

On what directors and writers should know about actors:

“Two things to look for: When an actor feels they are really, really lost and need guidance. And look for those times when the opposite is true — when the actor thinks he knows exactly what he’s doing. Both are a problem and usually need help.”

When asked how both circumstances could be true, he said, “In some actors with insecurity or overconfidence — which sometimes are the same thing — they want to freeze things and over-orchestrate things and control things in the wrong ways. It’s important that they recognize that it needs to be more free-flowing and immediate. And then there is the other extreme. They don’t even want to learn their lines. They want to be completely freeform. And that can be an issue, too.”

On what actors should know about directors and writers:

We are a collaborative pursuit, and it becomes a real problem when any one person loses sight of the collaborative notion.

Tony Shalhoub

“We are a collaborative pursuit, and it becomes a real problem when any one person loses sight of the collaborative notion. Everyone wants to feel that they are bringing something to the table. Not that everyone gets an equal voice all the time. That’s impossible. … In any kind of collaboration, there is always a give and take. You may not get everything you want all the time the way you want it. It’s a negotiation. If you develop that skill, everyone’s work is enhanced.”

On typecasting:

“I have that ethnic thing. Some people thought it was a liability because you have that look. It wasn’t a liability at all. It was an asset. Because I kind of worked it out so I wasn’t pigeonholed. I could do an Italian part or a Jewish part or a Hispanic part or a Greek part. … I think certain actors are great actors but limited to a narrow field of what they are able to do. That’s fine. People have made gigantic careers on that. There are many different kinds of acting. After doing Monk, people asked if I was concerned about typecasting. At my age, any casting is good. I’ll take typecasting, anything!”

On being a director:

“The biggest challenge was not trying to do the performance for each of the actors. Directing is a wonderful thing, but it brings out the control freak in all of us. The key to directing — if you can afford the time — is to have the patience to let things naturally happen and grow in an actor’s performance. But it’s a difficult thing for me personally to relinquish control.”

It is useful for directors to have acted or taken acting classes, he said, and was required when he was at Yale.

“Some of the directors were very, very good actors because they were instinctual, raw and kind of riveting because they weren’t concerned about their acting in terms of their egos or their careers. I believe it really helped them as directors.”

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Tony Shaloub: A Hollywood hyphenate who succeeds on screen and stage

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