Backstage: An interview with Jon Cypher

Actor Jon Cypher’s early acting career includes starring on Broadway as Prince Charming with Julie Andrews in “Cinderella” and playing Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.” His numerous films and television roles led to 10 years as Chief Fletcher Daniels on “Hill Street Blues.” One afternoon at Boulevard Coffee, we chatted about his 47-year career. This is the first in a two-column Backstage interview.

EH: You’ve done a lot of television, but what is the attraction to theater?

JC: That’s where the passion is. In the theater, the curtain goes up, you’re on stage, and you’ve got to do it. I got to play Thomas Jefferson on Broadway in a musical called “1776.” Out there, there were 2,000 people, and there’s that interaction of that audience. In a movie, you don’t have that. It can be great, great interaction with you and the other actor, a great scene together — it’s wonderful: “Oh my god, I forgot the camera was there.” But there are no people.

It’s being at risk. There’s really no present risk in film today. If something goes wrong, usually the director, will say, “Cut, no problem, let’s go back to one.” In movies or television, when the director says “Print,” 60 people turn around, walk away, and don’t care about you all. You think, “God, I never have to say those lines again.” What a difference.

It’s not an easy profession. You’re always being judged, by critics, by the audience. I’d say to any young actor who is thinking about entering the fray, “Gird your loins very sturdily and have a sharp sword,” because you have to pick yourself up many, many, many times.

Professional actors say that if you get one in nine auditions, you’re making a living. If you get one in eight auditions, you’re doing very well. That means that seven or eight times, they’ve looked at you and said, “Thank you very much. You’re too tall, you’re not good-looking enough, you’re too short, you’re too good-looking, you’re blond and we want a brunette.” It’s just one thing after another, or you blew it, because you were nervous.

Here’s something that I would teach young actors that I learned the hard way: The body doesn’t know the difference between fear and excitement, the body reacts in exactly the same way. When you’re frightened, heart beat speeds up, hard to get a deep breath. With excitement, heart beat speeds up, hard to get a deep breath. So if you say, “I’m frightened” you’re frightened. But if you say, “Oh, wow, I’m excited,” there’s a big difference.

That would be lesson number one. Define it as excitement not as fear, because when you get a call-back, and there are five other guys here that you know, that are your type, that are very good actors, and whoever gets this is a millionaire. You can be very excited about this, or you can be scared s—less.

I have met actors (that I thought were very good) who were 55 years old, working as bartenders, waiting for their big break. Do you know how I feel about being old? Shocked. You know you’re going to get old, but when it happens: No way — unbelievable.

EH: But your spirit is young.

JC: I guess. I can create a character observing you, her or him. I think actors tend to keep themselves open, young, alert, interested.

EH: What’s your secret to your long career?

JC: Poverty. (laughter) When you’re an actor, it’s what you do, as long as you can do it.

Evalyn Hansen is a writer and director living in Ashland. She trained as an actor at the American Conservatory Theatre and is a founding member of San Francisco’s Magic Theatre.

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