Where: a café in the Theater District. 6 pm.
This was one of the fastest interviews I had ever gotten, and since there was no previous small talk between us, I didn’t really know what kind of personality Mark Blum would have. My apprehensions were put to rest as we sat down to do the interview five days, one hour, and fifteen minutes later when he complimented a Nolan Ryan pin I was wearing. Then midway through the interview, he said his last name, and I was embarrassed to realize that I had been mispronouncing it since the moment we met! (It rhymes with "gum” not “broom".) Yet he never got insulted or corrected me, and when I apologized, he said it was all right and just kept on talking.
Mark Blum is a confident man who does not harbor any disillusion or arrogance about his career. He is currently finishing a long and successful run playing the widowed father, Eddie, in the Neil Simon Broadway hit Lost In Yonkers. The last of the original four lead actors to stay with the show, Blum has no qualms about his decision to remain with the play.
"Some of the people left after six months, and I chose to stay for another three. If I had had another extraordinary job to go and do, I would have gone to do it. Or if I had felt totally burned out and wiped out after six, I would have left. It is hard though, to sustain it for on and on and on. You just get tired, and it is kind of a relentless process--the idea of doing eight shows a week. It's emotionally grueling.
"I went through a phase where I thought I was getting stale after about three months, and then I suddenly started discovering all kinds of new, really exciting, spontaneous things. Somehow, I started re-conceiving the character, and I think you go through periods of that. So in the course of the run of the play, as long as I keep growing and exploring and finding new things about it, then it stays alive."
Staying with the play also meant that Blum had to find a new common ground in working with different cast members.
"It's a natural tendency, when you're in a play for a long time, to think that it's your play, and new people are sort of interlopers, and it's their job to adjust to you. But if you remain married to that concept, then you're hurting yourself as well as the whole play because the way a play remains vibrant is by growing and changing and allowing all the parts that are there to contribute. It's exciting, after you've been doing it for a long time, to have new people come in. It changes the dynamics."
Like most good actors today, Blum is a part of that vast majority of talented people who do not have multi-million dollar movie deals, yet who certainly aren't unknown. To his credit, he has a very positive and realistic view of his position in the film industry.
"Those of us who are not at the pinnacle of the profession would all like to be somewhat closer to that pinnacle because it gives us more opportunities to choose the better kind of work to do and to develop more interesting kind of projects. Very few people get to be big movie stars, and that's not happened to me right now. I would certainly like to cultivate the possibilities of getting more and bigger parts in films, but there's no magical way to do that.
"There are a lot of talented people out there, and they're not wildly different in ability or the quality of their work. Yet one of them will become a huge movie star, and the one next to him won't. Kevin Costner is the second biggest movie star in the world right now, next to Arnold Schwarzenegger. Why Kevin Costner? He's a fine, nice, good actor, but there are a lot of other actors out there in the same generation. Actually, Schwarzenegger is a better example. It's certainly not that he's the best actor. It's just that peculiar thing. That gigantic body and that funny voice just happened at a time when the evolution of the world and the movies all came together and anointed him King of Everything. You can't plan that." A devilish grin slips across his face. "Well, you could. But it wouldn't work."
Because audiences are most familiar with him from the box-office hit Desperately Seeking Susan and his co-starring role as the jilted boyfriend, Richard, in one of the highest-grossing comedies of all time, "Crocodile" Dundee, he has shown that he can appeal to the masses. So, why not Mark Blum, movie star?
"In the immediate aftermath of those two movies, there was a failure of imagination on the part of the industry in regards to me. I think that they saw those two movies, and what I did in them, and they went, 'Oh, O.K. That's what he is.' And they made a little square somewhere, and put me in it along with a couple of other people. Then they used me whenever that square was called for until they were tired of using me in that way. People think that I can’t play anybody who is reasonable or kind or intelligent.
“A friend of mine said he was wearing a pair of glasses, and he went in for a meeting with a casting director in Los Angeles. The casting director looked at him for a while and said, 'Do you always wear those glasses?'!" Blum laughs, and then mimics his friend’s sarcastic tone. "And my friend took them off and said, 'No. They come off.' It's a constant battle against lack of imagination in this business. Sort of ironic in a business which you would think would be all about imagination."
Instead of complaining about the situation in Hollywood, Blum has a humorous outlook on it and even offers some logical solutions.
"I think that the irony of all of this is that they have all these theories about what kind of movies will make money now. Whereas the bottom line is if you put Tom Cruise in a shitty movie, it's going to die. But if you make Home Alone with a kid who nobody ever heard of, and everybody loves it, then they sell two hundred million dollars worth of tickets. You just make a good movie! If you responsibly and intelligently market it, people will come to see it. If they don't come to see it, then it's because they didn't like it. As opposed to this concept that, 'Oh, no. It's October. In October, you can only release horror movies,' or 'It's July, and we have to have robot movies and patriotic movies.' That's horseshit!" he laughs. "And also this idea—‘We're making this kind of movie. Here's a list of the guys who the studio will approve for the lead.' And it's Kevin Costner, and it's Danny DeVito, and it's Arnold Schwarzenegger. Well, what if the part is really a perfect part for Bob Hoskins? What if he's the best one? Or what if this is a great role for Gene Hackman? For many years, Gene Hackman wasn't on that list because his movies didn't make money. But if you've got a part, and Gene Hackman's the best actor to play it, why do you want someone else? It won't be as good.
"And never ever can you use an unknown. God forbid! Except when they do, and it's successful. Then it’s, 'Oh. Well, that was just that one time.' With Desperately Seeking Susan, the studio was furious that Susan Seidelman wanted to cast Madonna in that role. They said, ‘This silly singer? That's crazy. You have to cast somebody on this list.’ And who knows who was on that list. And Susan said, 'No. I really insist,' and she pushed and pushed. Now Hollywood is probably teeming with executives who claim it was their idea."
When it comes to a choice between doing films or theater however, Mark Blum does not have a preference, and he cites the challenges of each with equal enthusiasm.
"Ideally, I would like always to be able to do one of each every year. I like them both very much. But you have to approach them somewhat differently because they're different mediums, and you work in different ways. In a play, you have four weeks of practicing, and every night you have to go out and do it all. Whereas in a movie, any given moment in the movie, you only really have to get it right once. Something which millions and millions of people are going to watch for years and years, you will have only rehearsed once before it gets on celluloid forever.
"Also in movies, you don't ultimately control what the audience sees. In your mind, what you were doing suddenly doesn't make any sense to you. They might reverse the order of two scenes, and you're not consulted. It's not up to you. Whereas in a play, you may have a director who's telling you to do this and that, but you are the one who has to do it. You are out there modulating yourself and controlling your own work."
So whether it be film, theater or television (he was a regular on the series Capital News and did guest spots on Miami Vice and St. Elsewhere), Blum enters a project by using his own brand of reasoning, especially when it comes to the sometimes unpleasant, sometimes rewarding experience of working with directors.
"First of all, you remember--they cast you. They either cast you because they know and admire your work from the past, or they cast you because you auditioned and they saw you in the part. So you have to assume that there's something about the essence of you--and what you bring to a part--that they want. We're all different actors, and we all have something unique to bring to any part that we play. So I think you just have to assume that if they hire you, they hire you for that special thing that only you can do.
"Given all of that, I also think you have an obligation to work very hard. My job is to fulfill the needs of the part, and it's not going to be necessarily easy or smooth in the collaboration all the way because there's egos and temperaments and different visions involved. Also, because as an actor, you can't see what you do. It's not like somebody asks you to paint an apartment, so you paint it for them, and then they say, 'This wall is all the wrong color.’ And you can look at it, and agree or disagree. You do work, and then they criticize it, but you can't look at it because it's you.
"Therefore, I think directors tend to have to be more sensitive about that, and more gentle and coaxing in some cases. Also, some actors more than others have very strong images of what they want to do, and sometimes it's not the same as the director and the writer. Sometimes that means they fight a lot. Sometimes it means somebody quits or gets fired. That stuff happens all the time. But in the best of all possible worlds, if the actor is an actor full of instincts and ideas and strong direction on their own, and the director also has strong ideas and instincts--but they're also sensitive and willing to work with each other--there's a collaboration that yields in the end something better than either one of them could have done on their own."
Mark Blum also firmly believes in the importance of taking time out to offer aspiring actors the best kind of assistance they can possibly receive: a reassuring invitation into this unpredictable profession.
"For many years, I taught some acting classes, and also in this Lincoln Center program in public schools. I haven't done it in a while simply because I haven't been physically in the same place consistently for a long enough time. But I enjoy it and I probably will go back at some point.
"But when I was a kid, it seemed impossible to me that I would ever actually meet anybody who was in the theater, who was an actor or director. I grew up in New Jersey, and my mother would bring me in for my birthday every year for a matinee. I'd wait outside, and I remember getting autographs from Robert Preston and people like that who were nice and generous, and who shared things and created a sense for me that the community of actors was a community which welcomed talented, excited people, and encouraged them to explore and to do it.
"This is a very hard business to be in. It doesn't offer you a great deal of security. It doesn't offer you a great deal of money in most cases. It doesn't offer you a great deal of stability. It doesn't offer you a great deal of respect in society. It doesn't offer you very much at all. What it does offer you is the opportunity to know and work with interesting and challenging, remarkable people doing work that no one's ever done before, and sharing in the process of making a play or movie.
"I just think that anybody who has a burning desire or need to want to know and get involved in this, the least that those of us who have had some success in it can do is to give them our gifts. To say, 'Yes, you're going to hate it. It's going to be horrible, and it's going to be miserable, and you're going to suffer. But if you're going to do it anyway, come on in!” AAA