Alan Alda on Longevity and Cynical Optimism
An entertainment icon, a keen communicator, and a feminist before it was fashionable, Alan Alda has an enduring wisdom that can teach us all new lessons.
LAURA BROWN: Hey, so you know what I’ve called your story? “Alan Alda, Badass Man”!
ALAN ALDA: Then I have to live up to that. [laughs] It’s like the other headline I loved. I was in London, and I had 15 interviews in one day, and I was really sick of hearing myself talk. The last question was one I’d never heard before. She said, “How long would you like to live?” I said, “A hundred and six if I can still have sex.” So the paper came out the next day, and Arlene [his wife of 62 years] is reading it, and the headline is “Watch Out, Girls!” And she looks up from the paper, and she says, “A hundred and six? Give me a break!”
LB: How did you pacify her?
AA: I said, “How ’bout it, honey?” The funny thing is, from that moment on, I actually thought I would live to be 106 [he’s 83]. I just picked a number, and then that was my number. Then I thought, “Oh, wait. I interviewed longevity experts and found out that people will routinely live to 250 before too long.”
LB: Really? When?
AA: Well, I’m not sure it’ll be in our lifetime. But I feel like, “Oh, shit, I’ve short-changed myself. I picked 106.”
LB: What would you do if you lived to 250?
AA: One of the researchers told me we would look and feel half our age. At 40 you’d look and feel 20. At 80 you’d look and feel 40. Unfortunately, at 200 you’d look and feel 100. I like it. I don’t understand why people say, “I don’t want to live forever.” Why not?
LB: I think it depends on your engagement with life. You’ve always been curious.
AA: Yeah. That’s one of the things that really keep me awake.
LB: Were you always interested in inhabiting other people’s perspectives?
AA: I think that’s built into acting. You’ve got to observe people to be able to do that. To write about them or to perform as them.
LB: Which role has been the biggest stretch for you?
AA: I’ve said it a lot, but Hawkeye Pierce [his character on M*A*S*H, from 1972 to 1983] was a stretch. I must have been successful, because everyone thought I was playing myself.
LB: At the beginning did you feel less comfortable?
AA: Right up until the very first shot I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I wasn’t convinced that I understood the guy, that I could say I’m him. When they called “Action!” I was still thinking, “Who is this guy?” I opened a door and walked across the compound, and there was a nurse coming toward me, and I just grabbed her around the waist and gave her a hug. [laughs] Then I thought, “Oh, that wasn’t so hard.”
LB: At his core, Hawkeye had care and respect for women.
AA: I was very up with feminism. I worked very hard on the show to try to steer it away from mindless sexism. I mean, Archie Bunker was not an admirable character, but he was presented in such a way that you saw through the behavior. I was always trying to work for that. I wasn’t always successful, but times were different then. I understand people watching some scenes [now] and saying, “What the hell is this?”
LB: It’s a fascinating time with the rise of #MeToo and Time’s Up and the big pendulum swing of behavior, how it affects creative voices.
AA: We’re going through a reevaluation in a lot of different ways. And I think it has to sort itself out. We’re not in agreement on what could sometimes align with our basic values. So that’s hard.
LB: How do you metabolize the news?
AA: I apply my curiosity to it. I’m always listening. I’m always looking for what the underlying point is or what is really going on. I’m making a long-range effort to help my podcast [Clear+Vivid] and the [Alan Alda] Center for Communicating Science [at the State University of New York at Stony Brook]. I’m working hard to see if we can help people have meaningful exchanges and not empty barrages thrown at one another.
LB: Do you read news in the paper? On Twitter?
AA: I read the paper while I watch television and eat oatmeal.
LB: How do you choose your guests for the podcast? You have such a wide range.
AA: I wanted the range because I want to deal with the same subject a little bit in every conversation, which is connecting and communicating. But my theory in starting it was that the importance of connecting and communicating applies to everything we do in every field, every endeavor. We’ve had well-known people and not-so-well-known people, but they’ve all been interesting conversations in areas you didn’t expect. Like Chris Voss, one of the FBI’s former leading hostage negotiators, who has these really fascinating techniques for dealing with a hostage situation that he says are also useful in a marriage. [laughs]
LB: Mutually agreed hostages.
AA: The techniques are all based on treating the other person with respect. Trying to see what their viewpoint is. Respecting their viewpoint. Not necessarily agreeing with it but just affording them the dignity of having something worth listening to.
LB: Right. Do you have guests on that you disagree with?
AA: They’re usually people I’m curious about who I think are going to be good conversationalists. I mean, somebody might be very good at explaining their point of view or their work but not so good at having a conversation about it.
LB: Who would you say is a badass woman — someone who is gutsy, inspiring, gets it done?
AA: I know a lot of women like that. One who comes to mind is Marlo Thomas. When she decides to do something, it not only gets done, it gets done with such class. She’s one of a kind, like [the way she founded] Free to Be … You and Me. And inspiring too. Guess how much she raises for St. Jude [Children’s Research Hospital] every year? Almost a billion dollars.
LB: Tom Hanks presented your SAG Life Achievement Award in January. I loved your speech because it was light, but it also had power.
AA: I thought a lot about that. My first impulse as a performer was to say something funny. And then my second thought was that these are fellow actors. They can see through an attempt to perform. You’d better be sincere about this. And what did I have to say, I wondered, that meant something to me and would mean something to them? And not just as actors but as actors in our time?
LB: I liked what you said about how by performing they could help.
AA: It obviously won’t solve everything, but it can’t hurt. I mean, that’s been our job since Greeks got up onstage.
LB: Does anything make you nervous?
AA: I’ve always suffered from overconfidence. Maybe not overconfidence, just more than enough. That’s not to say I haven’t been anxious. I had a case of anxiety onstage in London when I was doing Our Town [in 1991], and my part, the part of the stage manager, was a monologue through the whole play. You get almost no cues from anybody, so you’ve got to know a really long stretch of stuff. And I heard this voice in the back of my head at one performance that said, “Well, you got that line right. What makes you think you’ll get the next right?” And I immediately was drenched in flop sweat. And that went on for almost a minute. Then I realized I’m more anxious than I think I am. So I started working on that. Also, I get anxious when I walk into a huge room full of people, because I have face blindness.
LB: You do?
AA: Prosopagnosia, yeah. I must have had it a long time and didn’t know it. I didn’t know it was a condition. I can remember a person’s face in the short term, you know, like, for 15 or 20 minutes. But the next day I might not recognize them on the street. So I get anxious that I’m going to talk to somebody I’ve had dinner with 15 times and I won’t recognize them. And then they get pissed.
LB: When did you realize that was happening to you?
AA: After I found out it was a condition. Arlene went to a talk by [author and neurologist] Oliver Sacks and [artist] Chuck Close, who both had severe cases of it. Sacks’s was so bad, he was in a restaurant once, looked in a mirror at the side of his booth to primp his beard, and the mirror image was not primping its beard, because it wasn’t a mirror, it was another person with a beard. He didn’t realize it wasn’t his own face. So the condition can be very extreme. I don’t have it that bad. But once I understood it existed, I started realizing I was not remembering faces and that maybe that’s the source of some of my anxiety. There are ways I use to pick out features and try to remember. One feature can stand for a whole face.
LB: Obviously, you’ve achieved so much. Is there anything you’re still ambitious for?
AA: Well, I’m ambitious for whatever I’m doing. I’m deeply ambitious for the Center for Communicating Science. I want that to turn into something where it’s not only scientists and physicians who are taught to communicate better but people in business, people in sales, parents. I think it’ll help people to communicate better so they can stop the minor transgressions that lead to bigger ones. Simple things, like being interrupted at the conference table. Or having your idea stolen in front of you. Preventing that takes confidence and quick communication skills.
LB: Exactly. Otherwise those types of scenarios can develop into a passivity that is impossible to overcome.
AA: There’s a feeling among some women that any kind of training that helps them sharpen their skills implies that they need to be fixed, but that’s not true. Women have what it takes. There are studies that have shown that when women rise in a company, it makes more money. So wouldn’t you think companies would get the idea?
LB: You would think.
AA: But maybe the sexism is so entrenched that they think, “Oh, look, we’re making a lot of money in spite of the fact that all these women are running things.”
LB: I’m lucky. There are many powerful women in the fashion and publishing industries.
AA: I wanted to talk to you about that, because this is a very important topic.
LB: I have a crass but technical term, which is “Own your shit.” It took me a while to stand behind what I’ve done.
AA: That seems to be an important part, to take credit in your own head for what you are capable of. I wrote a play about Marie Curie, so I know a lot about her. When she was up for her second Nobel Prize, there were articles in the press denigrating her, mostly because her husband was dead and she had the nerve to have an affair with somebody. And the common word used to criticize her was she was “ambitious.” A hundred years later that was the term they used against Hillary Clinton.
LB: Why is it pejorative?
AA: It’s a compliment to a man.
LB: What are you cynical about, and what are you optimistic about?
AA: I’m cynical about most things and optimistic about most things. I think reality is our friend. I want people to be frank with me, and if they talk to me in code so it won’t hurt my feelings, I get upset because I don’t know what the problem is. I can’t fix anything if I don’t know what the problem is. And I’m cynical in that I believe most people operate by putting their own self-interest first. Once you recognize that, you can negotiate cooperation. So it’s not so much cynicism as it is trying to find out what’s what.
LB: On acting, anything you’re thinking of doing, or are you sort of prioritizing the podcast?
AA: I’m looking forward to working with Liev Schreiber again in Ray Donovan. I’m playing the psychiatrist, so I fully expect to wind up hanging from the shower in the bathroom.
For more stories like this, pick up the July issue of InStyle, available on newsstands, on Amazon, and for digital download June 14.