Actor Jeffrey Tambor

Meeting Spencer star describes the painful childhood experience that drove him to become an actor.

A multitalented actor with credits of over 100 film and TV roles, Jeffrey Tambor has earned six Emmy nods—four for his role in HBO's The Larry Sanders Show and two for his turn in Fox' critically acclaimed Arrested Development. He's also had key supporting roles in a number of films. Born and raised in San Francisco, Tambor built up his résumé in regional theater, has directed a number of stage productions and teaches acting. He's next up in several new releases, including the sci-fi comedy Paul, the sports drama Win Win and the upscale comedy, Meeting Spencer.


Tavis: If you visit your local movie theater some time this spring, there’s a pretty good chance you’re going to see Jeffrey Tambor in addition to his roles in the new films, “Win Win” and “Paul.” The six-time Emmy nominee also stars in the upcoming project, “Meeting Spencer.” This movie opens in New York on April 8 with more cities to follow. Correct, Mr. Tambor?
Jeffrey Tambor: More cities to follow.
Tavis: Yes, sir. Here now a scene from “Meeting Spencer.”
Tavis: [Laugh] That was funny.
Tambor: In all three movies, you’ll see me in three different weights.
Tavis: Three different weights.
Tambor: Yeah. I’m heavy in “Paul” and lighter in…
Tavis: Was that deliberate?
Tambor: I have four kids, so there it is.
Tavis: [Laugh]
Tambor: It’s weight control.
Tavis: When you walked on, I was gonna say, “Jeffrey has lost weight.”
Tambor: I look good, don’t I?
Tavis: You look amazing.
Tambor: Thank you. Let’s talk about my weight more.
Tavis: [Laugh] You feel good?
Tambor: I do. I feel good. I have four kids. Actually, I have five kids. I have one who’s in her 30s and I have six and four and two one and a half year old boy twins.
Tavis: Whoa, hold up.
Tambor: I’ll repeat that. Two one and a half year old twins [snore]. Tired.
Tavis: Can I just ask you, what were you thinking?
Tambor: Well, I wasn’t thinking. Apparently, I wasn’t thinking. Well, I don’t want to go into that.
Tavis: You were just doing. You weren’t thinking.
Tambor: I say to my wife, “Don’t look at me.”
Tavis: Since you went there, how do you navigate that when you were a father 30-plus years ago and now you’re better now?
Tambor: I’m better because you know more and you’re more grateful. I wasn’t a bad father. I don’t know. I feel like these kids are my mentors now. They’re my best teachers. I mean, there’s no one happier to see you in the morning, but that’s good. Not even my dog. My dog can’t see.
Tavis: [Laugh] What do one and a half year olds teach you since they’re your mentors?
Tambor: Joy. I mean, they’re really happy. I mean, everything is like….when’s the last time you did that? Obviously, when I walked on.
Tavis: When I saw you with all that weight loss. That’s exactly what I did [laugh].
Tambor: Right.
Tavis: I’d better hurry up and get to these films because…
Tambor: …oh, that’s right because…
Tavis: …you’re the only person on the show in I don’t know how long who has to talk about three.
Tambor: Unbelievable.
Tavis: You know, I’m not…
Tambor: …I mean, that’s not including the porno stuff that I’m doing.
Tavis: [Laugh] I’m trying to figure out when you made babies with three films.
Tambor: [Laugh] No, it just happens. “Meeting Spencer” which is coming out, and I’m really excited about it. It’s a great film. This weekend, “Paul” and “Win Win.” So when does that happen? I’m a very lucky guy.
Tavis: When you do projects like this, you don’t expect that they’re all gonna be out at the same time, do you?
Tambor: No.
Tavis: You had no idea about this?
Tambor: No, I had no idea. It’s great. It’s a Jeffrey Tambor festival for three days, a three-day Jeffrey Tambor festival.
Tavis: Let’s take them one at a time. First, tell me about “Meeting Spencer.”
Tambor: It’s a great film. It’s one of those things like “the little engine that could.” It’s this beautiful ensemble cast and I play this arrogant director. How can I possibly play someone like that, you’re asking. It’s a guy who’s down on his luck and he will do anything to get this play on and he in this movie does everything.
It’s kind of like “Win Win.” They have the same subject in a way. These are desperate times and people are asking desperate questions of themselves and acting desperately. It’s a comedy because, when we get like that, it’s pathetic, but it’s also ridiculous, right? These are hard times.
Tavis: To your point, though, on a serious note, when you have difficult times, I find that there’s nothing like humor. I mean, you got to laugh through some of this stuff or you’ll find yourself crying all the time.
Tambor: Somebody was telling me a story this morning actually over coffee. Right in the middle of mid pathos, we started laughing. We were pounding the table. I’m sorry, but I think it’s a spiritual gift that we have, that we can laugh at this, really.
Tavis: So I have not seen – that’s “Meeting Spencer.”
Tambor: You haven’t seen it?
Tavis: No, not “Meeting Spencer.” I have not seen “Win Win.” Sit down. I’ve been traveling. I’m anxious to see this because everybody who I know who has seen it says it is amazing. They say “Paul,” I mean, is a great project.
Tambor: Yeah, these are great projects and I’m glad to be associated with them. You know, it’s all I ever wanted to do was be an actor. I grew up across the street from a theater and I love the art of acting and all these films, these directors, Greg Mottola, Tom McCarthy and Malcolm who directed “Meeting Spencer,” Malcolm Mowbray. You know, I’m honored to be in their company.
Tavis: Tell me about “Win Win.”
Tambor: I play a wrestling coach, a guy named Vig. It’s about – Paul Giamatti plays a character who makes a bad move as people in desperate times do. It’s heart-wrenching. I went to a screening this weekend. It was packed and people were laughing and crying. Just like at my bar mitzvah. The same thing.
Tavis: [Laugh] We’ll come back to that.
Tambor: Okay.
Tavis: Thirdly, tell me about “Paul.”
Tambor: “Paul,” I just played this ass…
Tavis: …you?
Tambor: Yeah, arrogant. How can I…
Tavis: …I can’t imagine. You really are a good actor. [Laugh]
Tambor: How can I [unintelligible] who thinks a lot of himself? How can I play this? He’s pretty mean to these two guys. He’s a science fiction writer who thinks a lot of himself.
Tavis: When you said that all you’ve ever wanted to do is to act, how did you know that and at what age did you discover this?
Tambor: I lived across the street from a theater, very much like the guy in “Meeting Spencer.” I grew up and I went to the theater. While the other guys were playing baseball, I would go and sit down and watch the scene study class at San Francisco State College. It was right across the street from me.
I sat in the dark almost my entire youth watching guys do scenes. What I would love is they would stop and take it apart and they would put it together again and it was different. It still makes me emotional. I just loved that. To me, it was more comfortable than life, if that makes sense.
Tavis: I get that.
Tambor: It was very comforting. Also, actors are really nice people. They would say, “What do you think, kid?” I also had a bilateral lisp. I talked like this, so I needed to do something. I needed to be in the dark for a little bit and watch other people.
Tavis: Seriously.
Tambor: Yeah. My yearbook people said, “Nice meeting you, Cliff.” That’s how I said it. I overcame that. This is a real true story.
Tavis: That’s what I’m asking. How did you do that?
Tambor: I went to a speech therapist in San Francisco by a guy named Joe Mitsak and he cured me right there because I couldn’t hear it. For all those parents out there whose kids have braces, be careful because you start to over-enunciate. So I talked like this, like Gus-Gus in “Cinderella.” It was so painful that I think I became an actor to overcome that. It was so awful.
I remember in San Francisco State College when I later went there, I was doing a production of “Anthony – I can’t believe I’m telling this story – “Anthony and Cleopatra.” My character was named Darsatus (sp), but I called him Darchatus. The first rehearsal, there was an actor, a guy named George Ebey (sp) – Hi, George. I came out at the first rehearsal and he said, “Who are thou?” and I said, “Darchatus, I am called” and he went [snicker]. I remember, I said, “Whatever it takes, whatever it takes, I will take George Ebey down.”
Tavis: [Laugh] Now in a moment like that, there are two reactions that come to mind immediately. One is that you are so humiliated and so embarrassed that you run and hide somewhere. Or the other is, you summon the courage to say, “I am not going to let this defeat me” and you work your way through it.
Tambor: It’s very wise what you’re saying. I did both, I think. In film or in the theater or when I’m acting, I feel more like myself, or in this, I feel very relaxed. Yet if you and I were gonna go have coffee – and you haven’t asked me to go out for coffee yet – I would probably be more shy.
Tavis: That’s why I haven’t asked you. I’d rather talk to you here when I can get you to tell stories like these.
Tambor: Can we get some coffee? “Meeting Spencer.”
Tavis: Were you always funny?
Tambor: No. I remember the decision I made to be funny. I’m not kidding.
Tavis: You’re being funny now.
Tambor: No, I’m not.
Tavis: Yeah, you are. [Laugh]
Tambor: I swear to you, I swear to you.
Tavis: You made a decision to be funny.
Tambor: I swear to you, I swear to you that I…
Tavis: …that’s like making a decision to be Black. I made a decision to be Black. You did not make a decision to be funny.
Tambor: Yeah, of course, I did.
Tavis: How did you do that?
Tambor: Nothing else was working. I was scared all the time. I remember it was in school that I got up in front of – you had to tell news or show and tell and all that stuff – and I just started one-lining. Well, I was in love with Susan who sat in the first row and she would laugh. So I tried to make her laugh and it worked, so take it from there. I said, well, be funny.
Tavis: And that decision has paid off, obviously.
Tambor: Yeah. I mean, it’s funny because people ask my wife, “Oh, you must laugh all the time at home.” Well, you know, no laughs. We just have sex, apparently.
Tavis: [Laugh] and make one and a half year old twins. I’ve noticed – I don’t know how I missed this the first time. Maybe the conversation was different. But I’m noticing in this conversation, since you’ve been here a couple times, that your recall is excellent. You must learn lines pretty easy.
I say your recall is excellent because, just listening to you, every story you’ve told from way back when you were a kid, you remember the name of every character in these stories, every real life person. Your recall is pretty good.
Tambor: Yeah, it is. That’s interesting. I do remember that, except I have no idea where my car is parked right now. But I do remember that. I really have a selective memory. I do remember that, and books. Do you know that I’m a co-owner of a book store?
Tavis: Co-owner?
Tambor: Yeah.
Tavis: Here in L.A.?
Tambor: Yeah. Skylight Bookstore. Anybody go?
Tavis: I’ve been there many times.
Tambor: I’ve never said it on television before. You’re my first.
Tavis: Wow. I’ve given you some money over the years.
Tambor: You have?
Tavis: Indeed I have.
Tambor: Oh, great.
Tavis: I go there, Chris goes there.
Tambor: Mention my name and they’ll charge you more.
Tavis: [Laugh] In that case, I do not know this guy. Burn this tape [laugh]. All right, let’s repeat, shall we? Since Mr. Tambor is so busy, movie number one…
Tambor: “Meeting Spencer.”
Tavis: Movie number two…
Tambor: “Meeting Spencer.”
Tavis: Movie number three…
Tambor: “Win Win.”
Tavis: “Meeting Spencer,” that is important.
Tambor: “Paul.”
Tavis: There you go. “Meeting Spencer”…
Tambor: “Paul.”
Tavis: And “Win Win.”
Tambor: Friday night, “Win Win;” Saturday afternoon, go to “Paul” and, Sunday night, do whatever you want.
Tavis: There you go. It’s a Jeffrey Tambor festival.
Tambor: “Meeting Spencer.”
Tavis: At any theater near you.
Tambor: You really go to Skylight Bookstore?
Tavis: Absolutely.
Tambor: Cool.
Tavis: I am an avid reader, yeah.
Tambor: Mention my name. They’ll charge you more.
Tavis: Anyway, Jeffrey, good to have you here.
Tambor: You’re the best.
Tavis: Oh, you’re the best. All the best for those babies.
Tambor: Thank you. Wouldn’t that be funny if it was a lie and I didn’t have any children?
Tavis: [Laugh] Then you’d be fat again. The babies have got you thin, so be happy.
[Walmart – Save money. Live better.]

Announcer: Nationwide Insurance proudly supports Tavis Smiley. Tavis and Nationwide Insurance – working to improve financial literacy and the economic empowerment that comes with it. Nationwide is on your side.
And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm