Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guests, actresses Molly Cheek and Debbie Zipp authors of The Aspiring Actor’s Handbook.
Molly is a familiar face to television, motion picture and theatre audiences. She is best known for her work as Jim's Mom in the American Pie films, having appeared in the original and the smash sequels American Wedding and American Reunion.
Her additional feature film credits include Smoke Signals, Spider-Man II, Drag Me to Hell, and A Lot Like Love.
Her resumé is littered with numerous TV pilots, guest appearances,short-lived series and a single Broadway performance in the staged reading of Alan Zweibel's tribute to Gilda Radner, Bunny, Bunny. She co-starred on Showtime's ground-breaking series It's Garry Shandling's Show and three seasons as Mrs. Henderson opposite Bruce Davison in the syndicated TV series Harry and the Hendersons.
She has appeared in countless television series, as a regular on The Yeagers, Chicago Story and Go Fish and guest star on shows including New Girl, Without A Trace, Cold Case, Sabrina, The Teenage Witch; Diagnosis: Murder; Ellen, Murder She Wrote, St. Elsewhere, Family Ties and numerous others.
Molly’s stage credits include Mirage A' Trois at the Santa Monica Playhouse, Monkey Grass at the Victory Theatre, The Max Factor at the Drury Lane, Sunrise Over Manhattan at Westbeth Music Center and Encounter with Murder.
In between all Molly’s film and TV work, she co-wrote/produced the short film Sick Chick based on Cathy Cahn's one-woman show chronicling the absurdities of dealing with the medical world post-transplant.
Debbie is probably best known for her recurring lead role as Donna on the Murder She Wrote CBS series starring Angela Lansbury as well as her principal roles in over 300 national television commercials.
A few of her leading stage roles in Los Angeles include Judy in the Victory Theatre production of Sirens of Seduction, Gracie in Let's Get The Whole Thing Gershwin at the Westwood Playhouse and Debbie in The Good One at the Pan Andreas.
She's had lead series regular roles in the television series pilots The Cheerleaders with Richard Crenna directing and There's Always Room also starring Maureen Stapleton. She also starred with Darren McGavin in the TV series Small and Frye for Disney.
Just a few of the TV series she guest-starred on include Gilmore Girls, Malcom In The Middle, Magnum PI, Paper Chase, LA Law, New Love American Style and One Day At A Time. She appeared in such films as Like Father Like Son and Double Exposure. Her short film credits are Living Large With Less, Believe It Baby, Girltox, Welcome To My Garden.
Debbie was President of the non-profit activist organization Actresses@Work which helped lead the fight against ageism for women in the entertainment industry and while President there executive produced the documentary short Invisible Women, three PSA'S on ageism, and the stage production of Magpies Tea Room. She also produced the documentary short, The Forgotten Grave.
Debbie co-founded the production company IN THE TRENCHES PRODUCTIONS whose films must star a woman over 40. Debbie spearheaded the creation and development of the IN THE TRENCHES PRODUCTIONS Website which was the first entertainment website for women over 40 where she produced too many short films to mention here. Debbie also co-produces, co-writes and co-hosts the TOMATOES IN THE TRENCHES Blog Talk Radio Show, which is a lively gabfest for smart women over 40 and now is the West Coast Editor for the THE THREE TOMATOES, a popular website for smart women over 40.
Norm: Good day Molly and Debbie and thanks for participating in our interview.
What was your training as an actress and do you specialize in any particular technique? As a follow up, what motivates you to act and what keeps you going?
Molly: I studied the Neighborhood Playhouse/Sanford Meisner technique first, which is key to learning how to listen and respond truthfully on stage. Then, I did scene study at HB Studios, using the methods Uta Hagen spelled out in the iconic “Respect for Acting.”
Finally, I studied with Roy London who was all about making the stakes high for yourself in every situation. I wouldn’t say I specialize in any one technique, but the sum total of my studies taught me to strive to exist as honestly as possible in the imaginary circumstances a script provides.
Debbie: I studied acting in high school, college and throughout my career. I felt it was important to try all the varying techniques from each class I took. Eventually, I selected which techniques worked best for me and developed what I call the “Debbie Zipp Technique”. I collected my own set of tools from what I’d been taught and found my own way of getting where my characters needed to go. I am pursuing areas other than acting for now, but while I was working, the love of the craft and my strong belief in myself are what sustained me.
Norm: Tell me about a time where you had difficulty turning yourself into a character. What was the character and why was it challenging?
Molly: The most difficult experiences for me have been when I was called upon to be drunk. I just never got on top of the ability to re-create that state in any but a caricature-ish way, which I unfortunately did in episodes of two series I was on.
Debbie: Well, I find it most difficult when the words of the script or play don’t ring true to me. If they can’t be changed, finding a way to make them work is most problematic. Crying on cue is another tough one, especially in an audition environment when you don’t have the space or time to really prepare.
Norm: What would make you turn down a role?
Molly: The answer to that changes over time. Gratuitous nudity applied when I was younger. Embarrassingly sophomoric humor applies now.
Debbie: I don’t think anyone would want me nude at this age! But, no matter what the age, the nudity would have to be an integral element to the character or storyline for me to say “yes”. That, and a bottle of wine on hand.
Norm: How much research do you undertake for a role?
Molly: Not much since most of my work has involved characters not far from my own life.
Debbie: I've never done any characters in different time period except once and never a historical character or one with a major or many major character flaws. However, in each character that was a principal role I would do emotional research and character study and it would vary how much I did because I might not have the luxury of a lot of time. That is why having a solid toolkit to rely upon is so important for your preparation of a character.
Norm: What are the qualities in actors you most admire?
Molly: If you mean actors as a group of people, it’s their generosity and emotional intelligence.
Debbie: Their blind passion and their love of the craft.
Norm: What would you like to say to actors and actresses who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep acting, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Molly: I would somewhat cynically answer that “good enough” or “vision” aren’t necessarily prerequisites to success. And, of course, who decides what’s good enough? Mainly, if you want to be an actor, you keep doing it as long as it is fulfilling to you. Your vision or ability may not be recognized until, (like Ann Dowd recently), you have been at it for many years. Be honest with yourself whether you are enriched by the doing of it no matter what the venue, or if financial/celebrity status is what makes the doing of it worthwhile. Then, you’ll have your answer.
Debbie: Honor your love and passion for acting in every aspect of your journey by holding strong to your belief in yourself and your talent ….and your future. Only you can decide if your love and belief are great enough to weather the storms and overcome the challenges facing you time and time again on your journey.
Norm: What is your profession’s greatest challenge today and if you could change just one thing about the industry with the wave of a magic wand, what would it be?
Molly: By far the biggest challenges are related to the lack of diversity in age, race and gender among the roles available and the behind-the-scenes jobs. More and more, I feel this is a business for young people. The powers that be, whether advertisers, studios or networks, still cling to the worn-out notion that gearing entertainment to kids….and mainly boys….is the key to profits. The world has changed since that business model arose in the 1950’s, and Baby Boomers in particular are controlling the discretionary funds that go to the sponsors and theatres these days. Shows need to reflect this new majority audience better. Progress has been made thanks to the newer platforms such as Netflix and Amazon, and more diverse content is growing, but not fast enough to employ the over-50 talents I know who are struggling to keep working.
Debbie:If you are talking about the entertainment industry as a whole, then I would say the biggest challenge is stamping out ageism, sexism, racism and greed. That might sound simplistic and naïve, but Hollywood is a microcosm of society, and what we see reflected in the media has a profound effect on shaping the views of society. So, if we can rid show biz of those destructive elements, then the world will follow, and we might see a real wide-spread change for the better. At least that is where I would point my magic wand.
If you are talking about the acting profession and those of us in it, I believe our biggest challenges are: 1.) learning to please ourselves instead of everyone else, and 2.) treating an acting career as a true business. I’ve certainly struggled with those issues, and I believe most actors today do, too.
Norm: You have recently published The Aspiring Actor’s Handbook. Could you tell our readers a little about the book? As a follow up, what were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you achieved them?
Molly: The book is intended as a real-world look at the non-star acting career that’s possible to achieve. We thought of it as a kind of mentoring perspective that up-and-coming actors could use to address the day-to-day challenges of forging a show business career. Twenty-five successful, but perhaps not instantly recognizable talents contributed their best advice on handling all aspects of the industry, including some of the more personal issues that come up. I feel good about what they imparted and am especially gratified to hear from so many non-actors who found inspiration they could use in their lives as well.
Debbie: I am just tickled pink about our book. My goodness, we wrote a book we believe in and are proud of…and we got a publisher! And we were in our 60’s when we did it! We wanted to share the wisdom of experience with the many who are contemplating or are in the throes of pursuing an acting career. We wanted them to see what an acting career looks like from the perspective of those who have pursued, made a livable wage and built lives around that career. We wanted to provide a glimpse of what it might be like on a personal level to help them figure out if it really is for them. And if it is, we have advice from those who have chosen the path before them.
Norm: How did you decide you were ready to write the book and how did you share in its writing? As a follow up, did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Molly: A different book proposal was made to Debbie that she didn’t feel really connected to, but it got her thinking, and she reached out to some of her compatriots to flesh out other ideas. The response she got led her to the format of compiling advice from respected “worker bees”, and she invited me to help her find the structure and write wrap-around comments that would pull it together. Rather than try to fuse our individual points of view into one voice, we hit upon the notion of including dialogue between us as a way to further wrap-around the various topics. Certainly, one wonderful thing I learned was the joy of collaboration. The other significant discovery was that my respect for what the contributors shared wound up giving me more admiration and appreciation for the nobility of the profession….and by extension for my own work.
Debbie: One thing led to another, and Molly and I started collaborating, and it was such a rewarding process. It became a four-year process with breaks for “life stuff” and “work stuff” before we submitted it to publishers. We each have our pro’s and con’s and complement each other very well. For me, it was a pure, perfect and equal collaboration because we were dear friends first, had a great deal of respect for one another, enjoyed each other’s company and found this journey together inspirational.
I have said this often: in looking back over my career, I have found a renewed respect for myself. I didn’t reach my goal of starring in movies, but I was part of the 1-2% of SAG/AFTRA that made a good living as an actor. Writing this book helped me realize that I had accomplished the most important goal: living a full life doing the work I loved. I had thought of myself as more of a failure, but writing the book showed me I was a success.
Norm: What are your hopes for this book?
Molly: I hope this book makes the unknowns of pursuing an acting career less terrifying and goes a long way toward encouraging people to follow their hearts and dreams.
Debbie: I really believe there are very few books out like this one. We are mentors to all who read it, helping the up and coming to know what to expect and how to navigate the actor’s life. It’s also a good book for parents of budding actors to read. In many ways it will ease their minds the way I wish my terrified parents could have.
Norm: What makes your book stand out from the crowd?
Molly: I think we are different from the usual books for actors in that we address the personal aspects of living the life of an actor. We don’t talk about technique or which agents to approach or any of the nuts and bolts stuff. We are the voice of seasoned pros telling the wannabe’s how possible their goals are.
Debbie: And what they can expect living the real life of an actor and how to navigate it. We are mentors in this book to all that read it. I really believe there are very few books out like this one. It is also a good book for parents to read if their children are pursuing it. In many ways it will ease their minds because my parents were terrified by my wanting to become an actress.
Norm: Were there any elements of the book that forced you to step out of your comfort zone, and if so, how did you approach this part of the writing?
Molly: The comfort zone ends where the promotion of the book begins. The actual writing was a breeze compared with the challenges of getting it the attention it deserves. I am still struggling with it.
Debbie: Well just the fact that I was writing a book was stepping out of my comfort zone. Never thought of myself as a writer and had never done it except for speaking engagements. Just starting it and finding my own unique voice was huge especially when I was alone at the beginning. Finding a partner that I could trust was key to my overcoming the fear. I'm not the best at correct grammar either, as you might notice, but that is why it is good to have a partner. And even though we had a publisher they don't do as much in marketing or sales as they did on an ongoing basis. So having to be a sales lady is really hard. And it doesn't stop because your goals for the book will fall away if the audience you wanted to reach isn't reading it. So I've had to learn how to market and use social media even though I'm terribly technically challenged but you have to do it. Even though you dread learning it and putting what you learned in to practice. I just have to remember, in those uncomfortable times, that if I don't go into my sales lady zone all the work put in to the book and the valuable info and advice will be wasted if lots of people don't read it.
Norm: What are some of the references that you used while researching this book?
Debbie: We reached out to 25 other very experienced and seasoned actors to share their advice, expertise and stories so the reader would get a wide-range of views on the life of an actor. And, of course, we would research statistics to support certain elements in the book. Mainly, though, our lives were our major reference.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and The Aspiring Actor’s Handbook?
Molly: Our WEBSITE!
Debbie: What Molly said.
Norm: What is next for Molly Cheek and Debbie Zipp?
Molly: I’m still auditioning, albeit less frequently, and I am very involved with volunteer work for an organization called CASA, advocating for foster children.
Debbie: I'm currently the West Coast/Los Angeles Editor and Producer for The Three Tomatoes, The Insider's Guide for Women Who Aren't Kids, 3 T events and the LA Life 3T e-newsletter. At this age ideas, goals and dreams keep coming at a fast past but the problem is I have less time to accomplish them than I had in my 30's and 40's. However I feel pretty unstoppable even at my age.
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Molly: I think I would like to have been asked how I felt about the career I’ve had. The answer is that I am extremely proud that I was able to support myself and buy a house and take my Mom on vacations and work with some incredibly gifted people and all that, but as for my actual work, I am less and less impressed as I look back, which I think actually reinforces our premise that it is possible to have a career despite all kinds of obstacles.
Debbie: I think you did a great job with the questions but maybe I would have liked to brag about my children. Tee Hee!
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors