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6527212 February 08, 2010

Who Dat Actor: Eric Gipson

"Life becomes that drill sergeant yelling in your ear, pushing you to do things you never thought possible."

Some of my favorite fictional lines come from Irving Stone's novel about Vincent van Gogh, LUST FOR LIFE:

"Do you call yourself an artist?"
"How absurd. You never sold a painting in your life."
"Is that what being an artist means--selling? I thought it meant one who was always seeking without absolutely finding. I thought it meant the contrary from 'I know it. I have found it.' When I say I am an artist, I mean, 'I am seeking. I am striving. I am in it with all my heart.'"

If you aim to become a doctor, lawyer, nurse, architect, etc., you've got to get the degree. But what about acting, art, writing--all that.

You just have to do it?

Well, as someone who's been honing my writing skills for a couple of decades (not counting my childhood scribblings), like many writers, it bugs me when less dedicated folks so confidently call themselves writers.

While writing my first novel, I didn't tell anyone (except my husband) what I was attempting for several years. I was so serious about becoming a writer that the thought of being lumped in with all the hacks, non-talent, and false-starters out there trying to write books broke my heart. I wanted to be the real thing. I wanted to prove that I would actually finish my book, and that it would be worthwhile.

I was in it with all my heart.

My guest today, actor Eric Gipson, who has appeared in films such as Year One, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, and Blonde Ambition, brings up this longstanding issue of how we define ourselves as creative individuals.

Are you an actor if you show up at hundreds of auditions but rarely get chosen?

Are you a artist if you've not yet sold a painting?

Are you a writer if you've yet to sign with an A-list publisher?

Are you a musician if you sit in your room endlessly strumming your guitar yet never make it to the stage?

I've thought about this a lot over the years.

It's been extremely difficult for me to say to people, "I'm a writer," or "I'm an artist." I never wanted a single individual to doubt my commitment. It seems that part of the nightmare for one who is truly driven to accomplish something with the creativity they possess is having to start in that dense, crowded, swirling-together pile of everyone who ever thought they might be able to create something extraordinary. I know now that the pile is filled with all kinds of people--highly talented, mediocre, smart, not-so-bright, bored, and drifting. I tried to avoid that pile by keeping my endeavors and dreams to myself. In the end, I still had to start there. In a way, I'm still there, perhaps closer to the edge now, perhaps in transition like Eric.

Lately I often feel like I'm teetering on the edge of a giant precipice. I'm ready to fly but I've yet to get the go-ahead. I've made it to the writing Olympics. A-list editors know who I am; they're reading my work. I'm waiting for the starting boom. I'm seeking. I'm striving. I'm straining to hear it.

Will I ever?

Well, it just so happens that Eric and I are both members of the great Who Dat Nation. If the Saints can win the Super Bowl, I believe we can win, too. We won't give up. We can't. Eric is an actor and I am a writer. To use artist Joyce Dibona's phrasing, we're lifers. That's certainly what Van Gogh was. And sometimes that's what it takes ... a lifetime.

I often wonder if most highly creative people are born knowing what they want to do. Have you always wanted to be an actor or was it a specific creative interest that evolved over time?

Penelope, first, let me express what a pleasure it is to be interviewed by you.

To start, I'd like to clarify that I consider myself an actor although sometimes it’s said that one is not an “actor” in the full sense of the word unless they're making a full-time living at it. I've just about always been involved in some form of acting on top of supporting myself through day jobs.

In the past few years, I have had reasonably good success with opportunities in film because of the industry’s new affinity to Louisiana. I guess you could say that I’m in a somewhat intermediate phase.

Anyway, from the beginning so many have said “That Eric is different—he’s out there!”

Around 5th grade or so, when my class would line up to return from lunch or recess, I would step outside the line and entertain my classmates with all of them as the audience. It was just improv shtick. The true acting bug did not rear its head until the 11th grade when some classmates talked me into auditioning for the Woody Allen role in the Byrd High production of “Play It Again Sam”. While I was in the band and debate team, and did some things that required some outgoingness, I considered having the lead in a play to be a pretty bold move as I was pretty shy (I'm still pretty shy).

I didn't do any theater in college but I dabbled in some nonsense which at the time that I thought was “creative.” I had a basic garage band, The Tempo Tantrums, for a while.

Then I branched out due to a friend who discovered he could pull in this strange grassroots Little Rock radio station by hooking his FM receive to the TV antennae on top of his house. That was my exposure to industrial music, which more about the art of making noise-music. So we got some guys together and started recording improvisational things using real instruments combined with things like farm equipment and me doing stream of conscious ramblings. It was all just silliness and it didn’t require any practice of course. We started sending our tapes up to the Little Rock station. I hooked my FM receiver to my own roof and was able to not only pick up the station, but also hear them air what we recorded a few days earlier!

After graduating and moving to New Orleans, my first job was as the Public Relations Officer for the New Orleans Museum of Art. I soon made some friends who had in improv comedy troupe called Theatre Schmeatre. I joined their group and had a blast, and this rekindled those desires to perform and entertain people. I then got roles in theater productions in New Orleans and later when I moved to Asheville, NC. These were augmented by occasional TV commercial work, some attempts at stand-up that never quite jelled, and some outright silly “performance art” that I did on my own just for grins. For example, in New Orleans, I’d go down to the French Quarter with a guitar case and make my way to Jackson Square where all the cool cats would be singing folk songs and whatever for the tourists to drop money in their instrument cases. I would open my guitar case and instead of it containing a guitar, there’d just be a bunch of celery. I’d stand there just holding the celery bunch and when people came up and inquired, I’d say, “It’s an organic gig.” Some really freaked and thought it was just the most beautiful thing!

I was also able to get in some “performances” during my job at the Museum. For example, my job in public relations was naturally to publicize things like our new exhibitions. We had one called “Making Their Mark: Women Artists Moving Into the Mainstream.” I thought I’d get us some TV publicity throughout the region and booked myself on a southern Mississippi TV station to be interviewed. But I thought there should be a woman’s perspective to the show, so I asked this girl in my improv group, if she’d be on with me posing as an “art critic.” She agreed, we drove to the Mississippi station for the live studio interview, didn’t quite pull it off as smoothly as we wanted, but it was great fun in hindsight.

Do you have other creative interests, and if so, what are they?

I'm blessed that my current situation involves many applications of creativity. As an actor, I enjoy being creative in terms of how I approach a role. Many actors, however, still need our day jobs, and mine is one of the best. As the public relations manager for Sci-Port: Louisiana’s Science Center (named one of America’s 10-Best science centers by Parents Magazine--had to get that plug in). Here’s a bit of what I get to do: TV appearances as a Mad Scientist; radio (right now I host a series of Eco-Tech Minutes on our NPR affiliate); writing copy; and coming up with concepts that are applied to billboards, print and broadcast ads.

I also enjoy seeing what I can find at flea markets and estate sales—mainly books and records.

There is a stereotype that creative people are "different," which can be a positive or a negative at times. What are your thoughts on this?

There are so many variables and a lot of them depend on what your situation is, such as your family, the community you live in, where you work, your friends, etc. All of these factors play a role in determining whether or not your creativity is nourished or discouraged (or worse, even punished). Negatives can also rear their head out of that basic human spite and competitiveness that everyone must face from time to time. Everyone who is creative will encounter the Schadenfreude types on occasion. They used to get under my skin at times but in hindsight, I realize that’s what they were trying to do. Now when I encounter someone who I know would love nothing more than to see me fail, I just think, “Whew, glad I don’t have an adjoining office cubicle or am on a long bus ride with this person!”

I’m a left-handed Sagittarius, born on Friday the 13th and am told that my family comes from Old Souls. I don’t get out of bed in the morning and think, “Well! How can I set myself apart from the pack today?” But here’s one example: I just adore good puns, especially when executed improve on the spot and sometimes I’ll let one fly in reference to something that might occur in a grocery store line or the like—I can’t resist it, and I never know if the people around me will get it and laugh or think I’m just plain bonkers. It’s not to say, “Look at me, I’m funny.” I just enjoy entertaining people, brightening their day, and the real world always provides a real enough stage in itself.

Do you believe being creative has caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

Most definitely both.

I have lost two siblings: one suddenly and tragically and another of natural causes. My family is very creative, sensitive, and (I’ll have to say) just about the nicest people you could ever meet. When bad things happen to good people, it produces all the grief and emotions you can imagine, but it also sometimes creates an undercurrent of “Why go for it (your dreams, goals, fill in your own blank...), when the rug can be pulled out from under you at any second?” But in terms of dealing with such aberrations, I've had roles where I was able to method-act and channel those emotions and thoughts, and it not only helped my performances, it was also very therapeutic.

It’s kind of interesting because most of my roles have been comedic, but it’s not really a contradiction when you consider that song title, “Being Crazy is the Only Thing That Keeps Me Sane.” And my goodness, like the shtick of the classic comedic actors and their situations—more often than not, it’s about everything about to go to hell in a hand basket, a house of cards about to crumble ... and we can identify with the precariousness.

Artistic expression of any form is one of the best ways to get things out whether directly or indirectly, concretely or abstractly. Perspective and a sense of humor aren’t bad to have, either.

As for another aberration, I'm often at battle with myself about keeping calm, especially when it comes to public appearances and giving speeches. The worst is when I get a film role and walk out onto the set for the first filming. I don’t take anything for that. I just generally pray that it’s not too early in the morning so I can get in a jog and be reasonably relaxed--given my hyper nature. And of course, watch the caffeine. If you have the chance, find “Don Knots Nervous Speech” from “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken” on YouTube—you’ll get the picture!

Have you had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

I never thought I was a misunderstood genius, tortured artist, or anything like that. My parents were older than most kid's my age, and while they were not strict in the “Do your homework NOW!” sense, they were very overprotective. My dad (who passed away in ’95) allowed me to do one theater production in the 11th grade, but forbade me getting a role in the senior year show because he thought it would negatively impact my grades. Fast-forward many years later -- my mom loves it when I call to tell her I’ve received a performance payment or residual check from the Screen Actors Guild. (“Oh boy! The roof needs some repairs! I just got a huge water bill!”).

When we lived in Asheville, NC, my ex-wife (but still a great friend) thought it was such a waste of time and money for me to pay to have a demo tape made and drive down to Atlanta to cart it around to talent agencies. She really never held me back from doing theater productions, however, and I realize it was more about our finances at the time.

I often wonder, "Am I truly creative or do I just think I am?" Have you ever wondered about this? In a world filled with creative people and people who think they're creative, how were you able to distinguish yourself and your talent despite any doubts along the way?

I think some artists, especially when starting out on a venture, might wonder if they’re being too derivative of something or somebody. But influences and inspirations are crucial and are often the propelling element for anyone to decide to become an artist or performer of any sort. Outside reinforcement is also necessary, at least every now and then. If not in huge rewarding ways, at least in just a few points that keep one going in the struggle along the way. Like that smiling look the Vice President gives to the exhausted and nearly beaten Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” that enables him to continue his record-setting filibuster.

Unfortunately, many creative people never achieve the success they dream about. How have you coped with disappointments?

There are the times when you think you’ve done a slam-dunk audition, when everything was just right. The role was tailor-made for you—and you did everything “right” that day by being prepared, exercising a bit in the morning to curb anxiety and avoid wobbly-knees in front of the casting people. You leave the audition room feeling great, but then tell yourself NOT to wait for the phone to ring with a message from your agent (I usually found that it does ring when I least expect it and have forgotten about the audition). Sometimes you might get three call-backs. The role is down to you and another person. Then you find out, through silence, that you didn’t get the role—but wait! Who hoo! The phone rings!

“Oh…no…thank you, sir but I just can’t participate in your brief survey now.”

I often wonder about the similarities and differences creative people have in terms of thought processes. How would you describe your creative process? How does your mind work?

Like many, I sometimes worry that I think too much and that my thinking gets in the way of action and the old-fashioned unbeatable good night’s sleep. But there’s just something magical that happens when a creative rut is rectified by that rush of creativity that comes on like a sudden thunderstorm. It just comes, and sometimes I wonder from where!

The older I get, the more I see that things are cyclic. Maybe every once in a blue moon, I’ll think everything is perfect and in place, but that’s rare. As adults in the real world, it seems many of us always have to have something stressful going on to fret about. When that “crisis” is over, it’s replaced by something else. I’ll find that the job is going great, but my daughter has strep or I might develop some health scare that makes me paranoid; or I’ll be feeling just top of the world, and then I find out about budget cuts; or things are kind of mediocre/ok and I’ll develop and sort of peaceful Zen-like acceptance combined with thankfulness for all I have…but then I find out the bank account is in the negative.

I recently heard that life is like flying an airplane—it’s a constant adjustment for error. The wind currents and other factors are constantly trying to knock that plane from its course, and so it has stabilizers and rudders.

That magical rush of creativity can come amidst the most violent thunderstorms. The irony is ... as stressful as crises are, it’s then when we often feel most alive. Life becomes that drill sergeant yelling in your ear, pushing you to do things you never thought possible. Believe me, I don’t thrive on crises, but it’s just something I’ve noted about myself and others.

What are the top three characteristics of a highly creative person, in your opinion?

1. Considers just about everything in multi-dimensional terms.

2. Has high emotional intelligence and is very intuitive

3. Probably has demons, doubts, fears and regrets of one form or the other, but also dreams and hopes and wonderfully sublime moments; and knows that there are moments of joy that weigh against a whole lifetime.

Many creative people have tons of ideas but never follow through. I'm not sure if it's because they lack drive, organization, or focus. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?

That adage "one percent inspiration and 99% perspiration" has some meaning, but I’d certainly divide it more. When one is creative, it would just be great if the world was perfect and the inspiration just somehow manifests itself into action. But we all to some extent have to then become, ugh, business people, by #1, getting to work and then #2, having a plan on what to do with the work once it’s completed. I’ve found that having a deadline helps to spur creativity. In my day job, I often have to come up with ideas for advertising campaigns that are then manifested in billboards, magazine and newspaper ads, marketing materials and often the broadcast media. I like to think under pressure—and like crises, I don’t like to be under pressure all the time—but there’s also a good kind of pressure that can jump-start the brain.

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