Pearly Gates of Heaven
Inside ‘Inside the Actors Studio’: Backstage With James Lipton and the ‘Girls’ Cast
For the first time in 22 seasons, James Lipton let a journalist backstage at an ‘Inside the Actors Studio’ taping. With the Girls cast milling about, we talk about… everything.
James Lipton is a man of ritual.
There is a whirl of chaos that surrounds him on this frigid December night, roughly an hour before he’ll hit the stage to film the next Season 22 episode of Inside the Actors Studio. Lena Dunham, toting several bags and a respectable entourage, breezes by, chirping a giddy, “Hi! Hi! Hi!” to everyone as she passes.
People in headsets are shuttling Girls cast members into green rooms scattered in the hallway of Pace University—Dunham, along with co-stars Allison Williams, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet, will be the episode’s guests—while production assistants direct audience traffic and bustle around backstage in final preparations for the taping.
But standing calm in the middle of the storm is James Lipton. This is the 266th time he’s done this since 1994, after all, and he has his rituals.
“Rule number one: Turn off the cellphone,” he whispers to me in that regal articulation that, turns out, isn’t just for TV but Lipton’s everyday speech.
In a makeshift dressing room teeming with publicists, assistants, and sound guys manipulating his suit jacket to mic him up, he manages to lock eye contact with me, as if we’re the only people in the room and not surrounded by utter pandemonium.
“Rule number two: Tape down the mic,” he continues, his serenity suddenly interrupted by panic. His eyes dart around until he sees them: the roughly 10-inch stack of large blue index cards. His Bible, marked up with post-it tabs and highlighters and five hours of research for questions he plans to ask the Girls cast.
“My nightmare,” he sighs, once he locates them on a desk just a few feet away. “Somebody steals my cards.”
He takes the long walk to the studio to shoot pre-tapes—past the Pace classrooms, onto the catwalk in the rafters of the set, and down a long and rickety spiral staircase—like a man who is 90-years-old, which is to say slowly, deliberately, and self-conscious about holding everyone up. “You’ll probably want to go ahead of me,” he says.
Somewhere between makeup room and the pre-tape, there’s another jolt of panic. “Brad!” he shouts, frantically. “Brad!” Brad is Lipton’s assistant, and the keeper of his cards. That is to say, Brad is his lifeline. He has them. “My nightmare…” he says again.
Heaving a bit from the trek back up the steps—honestly I’m winded, too—and satisfied with how the pre-tape went, we finally have our own moment.
For the first time in the show’s 22-year history, Lipton has allowed a journalist backstage before a taping, to observe his rituals and have a down-to-the-wire chat about his life, the show, and how the sausage is made. With the Girls episode airing Thursday night, we take you inside Inside the Actors Studio, if you will.
Inside the Actors Studio began in 1994 as a televised master class for the students of the Actors Studio Drama School. Paul Newman, the school’s former president, was the first guest, and the series, years before any housewife dared label herself “real,” quickly became Bravo’s flagship program.
As its network evolved from independent film showcase to flashy haven for boozy spectacle and table flipping, and as the reality-and-talk series formula married itself to whiplash editing and viral-ready bits, the show has lasted stalwart in its simplicity. The classy cockroach outlasting culture’s nuclear holocaust.
It’s persisted 22 seasons on a premise so basic it might now be considered audacious: talking with celebrities about their backgrounds and their craft. Two decades later, we have the opportunity to do the same with Lipton.
“I’ve been working on these cards since July,” he tells me, patting the stack of his work proudly. Each cast member’s interview was prepped as if she was the only one on the show. Filming will take over four hours.
He’ll do four shows in December, a huge undertaking given the research involved. The fastest he can turn around an interview is with three weeks of preparation per individual—multiplied if it’s a cast interview.
“When I say three weeks, I mean 12 hours a day. I mean seven days a week,” he says. “Some years I’ve only had two days off in the year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. This year I’m barely making Christmas.”
The process starts when Jeremy Kareken, the program’s chief and only researcher outside of Lipton, who happens to also be a graduate of the school, sends him a dump of raw material.
Lipton goes through it, beginning to end, and every time he sees something of interest he makes a new card. That’s what takes so long. That’s why there are so many cards. And that’s how he startles the hell out of his guests with obscure details.
(Billy Crystal, after a question about an obscure role in a high school theater production—a favorite topic of Lipton’s—once gasped, “You know you’re scary, don’t you?” Presented with the exact address where he had been born and raised in Wales, Anthony Hopkins remarked to the audience, “He’s a detective, you know.”)
“I’m telling a story as if I’m writing a screenplay, which I’ve done!” Lipton says. (He wrote for several soap operas, including Another World and Guiding Light.) “Or as if I’m writing a musical, which I’ve done!” (He was the librettist and lyricist for the 1967 Broadway musical Sherry!) “Or creating a ballet, which I’ve done!” (He choreographed a ballet for the American Ballet Theatre.)
A meticulous researcher and fetishist of facts, it should come as no surprise that no one is more well-versed on—and happy to recite—his bona fides and successes than Lipton himself.
His show is in 94 million homes in 125 countries, he casually mentions. It’s earned 19 Emmy nominations, and one win. Last year, he won the Critics Choice Award for Best Reality Show Host, indicating, as he says, with emphasis, that the show is “flourishing.”
“If you’d have asked me to predict any of the things I just described to you or you’d shoot me in the head, I’d say pull the trigger,” he says, his eyes widening with glee at the punchline, a charming tick so perfectly lampooned on Saturday Night Live by, as Lipton playfully calls him, “a fellow named Will Ferrell…”
He’s developed a reputation for doing cast shows—popular past ones featured Everybody Loves Raymond, Arrested Development, How I Met Your Mother, and Family Guy—“but I’m not too happy about that because they’re difficult to do and they require so much of my time.”
That booking the Girls cast amuses people certainly isn’t lost on this 90-year-old man, with audiences presumably tickled at the notion of what his reaction might be to watching Dunham play ping-pong topless, or Williams be on the receiving end of anilingus.
“I think that will provide some of our most interesting moments,” he says. “And, by the way, being of a different generation I do still understand the sexual implications of this show. I have a memory.”
Watching Lipton hold court with the four actresses is witnessing a triumph of stamina, 300 minutes later—a marathon edited down to 42 minutes for Thursday’s airing.
He goes one by one through each of the stars’ lives, surfacing tidbits that even Dunham, whose life didn’t seem like it could have been parsed any further, was shocked by: “How’d you find that out? That’s not on public record!”
There was her time as a stand-up comic in high school—her opening line: “Hi, I’m Lena, and I’m an alcoholic. No, I’m kidding. My dad is.”—and her surprisingly pro-life abortion play that she wrote in high school, two hilarious anecdotes that, for time, are on the cutting room floor.
You’ll miss Jemima Kirke’s discernible skepticism about the whole process—“Do you do this with everyone?” she asks—give way to pure and utter James Lipton adoration.
And while it’s unlikely that Lipton’s questioning of each girl’s relationship to the show’s nudity and sex surfaced anything novel, Zosia Mamet’s interview proved to be revelatory, covering her tortured relationship with her divorced parents, her troubled childhood, and uncovering the fact that, after all the talk of her famous father, playwright David Mamet, it’s often ignored that her maternal grandfather, Richard Strouse, wrote The Sound of Music.
“WHAT?!” Dunham gasped, stunned. You have not been flashing that around.” “Guys, I saved that for right now,” Mamet laughed. Williams almost started crying.
Lipton, watching the hullabaloo at his desk, keeps his finger on his place in his notecards and looks out at the audience, the beaming smile of a pleased man on his face. He did the work, now we’re all having a moment.
Later, that same facial expression returns when he interrupts Williams’s story about Pilates to reveal that he was trained by the inventor of the workout, Joseph Pilates, himself. In fact, Lipton was the eulogist at Pilates’s 1967 funeral.
Almost unbelievable personal anecdotes like this are as much a hallmark of Lipton’s method as the Proust questionnaire—“What’s your favorite curse word?” for example—featured in each episode.
He pursued a law degree after serving in the Air Force, taking acting classes in order to earn a living and eventually turning it into a profession. In the 1950s, he was a pimp in Paris. He claims to have once helped fly the Concorde in a dense fog.
As it were, he loves his life: “Sometimes I wake up in the morning, and you know who I envy? Me, if the day looks particularly promising.”
He swears that he’s never happier than when bogged down with work. His study faces a garden through stained glass windows. “It’s a very peaceful place,” he says of the townhouse he shares with his wife of 46 years, Kedakai Turner Lipton.
“When people have asked me what is your greatest achievement, my answer is very simple and very quick: my marriage,” he says. When he accepted the show’s Emmy in 2013, he ended his speech: “I share this moment with my wife, Kedakai Lipton, who did me the small service of redefining the universe.”
Kedakai Lipton is a real-estate executive. She’s half-Irish and half-Japanese. “She’s famously beautiful,” he says. She was the original Miss Scarlett on the card and cover box of the game Clue. “You know when it turns out to be your wife who killed Mr. So-and-So in the library with the candlestick, it can unnerve you.”
As we continue talking about his life, the show, and his successes, the only person who doesn’t seem surprised by Inside the Actors Studio’s longevity and relevance is Lipton himself.
His series remains in stark contrast to the rest of the fare on his network. Does he even watch Real Housewives? “No, no, no!” he cries. “It’s not the kind of show I customarily watch. Do other people watch? Many more than watch my show? You bet! Does that help pay the bills that finance the show? You bet. So I’m all for them.”
Plus, he sees every day the reach his series still manages to get.
Just the other night he and Kedakai were walking toward their house, and the street was lined with fire trucks, which had just finished responding to an alarm. Someone from the first truck saw him and shouted, “What’s your favorite curse word?” Seconds later, he was posing for selfies.
“The only time I get depressed is when someone says, ‘I’ve been watching you all my life,” he says, laughing. “But it astounds me, the young people who watch this show. And all of it, the credit for all of it goes to those people who I’m about to go talk to on stage. The fact that they would come. They’re hot. They turn everybody down. But they come here.”
As he’s whisked away to film, one last ritual: gratitude. “God I appreciate that. I’m so grateful.”