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Why Alan Alda pays close attention to people’s faces

Alan Alda had an unusual childhood, but it helped him hone his identity as a communicator. As his mother suffered from mental illness, he became a close observer of people, their faces and body language, which led him toward becoming an award-winning actor, writer, director and now podcaster. Alda gives his Brief but Spectacular take on being connected.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Next, we turn to another installment of our weekly Brief But Spectacular series.

    Alan Alda is an award-winning actor, writer, director, and now podcaster. His latest interview show, which includes everyone from comedian Sarah Silverman to violinist Itzhak Perlman, is called "Clear and Vivid."

    The first episode dropped this past Tuesday.

    Here he is, artfully demonstrating to our Brief producers Steve Goldbloom and Zach Land-Miller, the importance of communication.

  • Question:

    Mr. Alda, I will just get a sound level from you, if you can tell me what you had for breakfast this morning.

  • Alan Alda:

    Everybody wants to know what I had for breakfast. I'm so sick of that.

  • Question:

    How about…

  • Alan Alda:

    I will tell you what I had for breakfast. Here's what I had for breakfast. I had peanut butter, two spoons. I'm starving. That's what I had for breakfast.

  • Question:

    This is exactly the answer we're looking for.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Question:

    We can go home.

  • Alan Alda:

    Are you ready?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Alan Alda:

    I was born in New York.

    My father couldn't make a living as a junior architect because the Depression was on. And he started singing in paid amateur nights, where he was a ringer. He'd come in and get paid to pretend he was an amateur and win the contest.

    And then he went into burlesque. We traveled up and down the from Baltimore to Toronto. I used to shoot craps with the strippers. It was an unusual childhood. Unfortunately, my mother was psychotic. She had — suffered from schizophrenia and paranoia.

    And it was difficult, because, as a child, I didn't know it wasn't her fault. So I got very good at observing her and, by extension, observing everybody else. I think that helped me be a writer and an actor.

    Now, I pay attention to people's face and their body language all the time. Watch people when they communicate with other people. Watch the next time somebody says, here's how I feel about this. I feel very strongly about this.

    You're over there, and they're not looking at you. They're looking into the blue space over here. Why? If they want me to get what they're saying, why aren't they checking my face? And, by the same token, if they're not checking my face, they're talking to the wrong person. They are talking to who they think I am.

    As a matter of fact, this is very difficult for me, because I'm talking to the damn lens. And there are two guys behind the camera — and you're laughing, you're smiling. And I got to pretend the lens is what's reacting to me.

    I am reacting to you, but I'm not — it's only peripherally. I'm looking into the lens. You're making it very hard for me to relate to you.

    Improvising changed me as an actor, and it changed me as a person. And I began to realize that I could really be of service to other people, first scientists, because I had spent 11 years interviewing scientists. And I saw that, when we improvise together, when we just listen to each other and had a conversation about science, the science became clearer, it became alive.

    I think, after the show, a lot of people will be wearing this.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Alan Alda:

    What did you ask me anyway?

  • Question:

    No, I am going to pick up on that. Where did…

  • Alan Alda:

    Oh, you're picking up on something. This is exciting. I'm so glad about it.

    No, go ahead. Go ahead. No, this is a moment of spontaneity. I love this.

  • Question:

    Where did your desire to help scientists communicate their work come from?

  • Alan Alda:

    That really came out of the moment?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Alan Alda:

    My desire to help scientists communicate came out of doing this science show, "Scientific American Frontiers."

    They weren't conventional interviews. I didn't go in with a list of questions. I just wanted to understand them. And if I didn't understand them, I would grab them by the collar and shake them, and I'd say, tell me again. Make it plainer. I can't get it.

    I wasn't afraid to be ignorant. Ignorance is a really good thing, as long as it's coupled with curiosity. Ignorance without curiosity, not so good.

    I am Alan Alda, and this is my Brief But Spectacular take on being connected.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you can watch more Brief But Spectacular videos online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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