Before landing at UNLV three years ago, this director-actor-writer wrote and directed two seasons of CBS's Emmy-Award winning The Inspectors, (the last of which was recently nominated for an Emmy), created and starred in Hollywood Residential, a scripted half-hour comedy for Starz, and co-wrote, produced, and directed Full Nelson, a wrestling comedy web series with more than five million views.
As an actor, Adam Paul is best known for playing Mitch, ‘The Naked Man,’ on the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. He also appears in numerous TV programs and films, including The Informant!, One for the Money, and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron.
Tell us about a time in your life you were daring.
In college, I went skydiving shortly after breaking up with a girlfriend. The timing felt right and, bizarrely, my alma mater offered P.E. credit for it. The facility offering the jump didn’t do tandem jumps back then (where you’re strapped to the belly of a professional), just static line jumps (where you jump out of the plane on your own and a tether attached to your chute pulls it open for you). To keep this story short, let me just say that standing on the wing strut of a single-prop plane at 3,000 feet to get over a relationship while someone screams “LET GO” at you no longer felt daring; it felt like the money should have been spent on a therapist. After landing safely, I nauseously vowed to never skydive again. Turns out therapy takes much more courage, anyway.
What inspired you to get into your field?
I always wanted to be an actor. My grandmother was very artistic and certainly encouraged me along the way. I enjoyed the escape of acting — the sense of play and daring in being and doing something I’m not and wouldn’t (this is the real answer to the question above). If acting is “living truthfully under imaginary circumstances” as Sanford Meisner said (my favorite definition), then that requires a constant sense of adventure and, often, danger. Inhibition directed by a story or script or improvisation is like a powerful laser. It’ll cut through anything. I suppose that sense of power combined with the discipline of truly being in the present moment was exhilarating to me — as it is with most actors I know. It’s hard to ignore or walk away from.
Tell us about POD115. What was the catalyst? What are some remarkable aspects of it?
POD115 (www.pod115.com)was born from my longtime appreciation for the early career of Orson Wells and his Mercury Radio Theater on the Air. He was a theater kid who jumped into a new medium in 1938 and re-told H.G. Wells’ 40-year-old War of the Worlds for a contemporary audience experiencing a story through only one of their physical senses: their ears. But the East Coast of America’s imagination did the rest of the heavy lifting and believed Earth was under attack from Martians. I loved the combination of repurposing creative material, utilizing a new medium and playing with a mass audience.
When I was first starting out as an actor in Los Angeles I imagined a re-re-telling of Wells’ retelling incorporating some of the contemporary mythology of UFOs and alien abductions, sightings and videos, and terrifying tales of missing time and trauma from scientific experiments on humans by aliens. I imagined it as a live-theater experience that could be replayed on the radio. But I never got around to writing it. Then Lied Library opened its Makerspace and Multimedia Center and I thought the popularity of podcasting might give this old idea some life again.
I collaborated with a terrific writer, Rae Binstock, who totally embraced this idea of creating a story about college students whose podcast is hijacked by an alien in the Nevada desert. I presented the idea to theatre department chair Norma Saldivar as a potential ongoing course that would teach actors content creation and self-production skills that would result in a public-facing, collaborative production created, produced, and distributed globally within a single semester. In addition to performing in the POD115 series, the students in the course create their own podcast pitches and 10-minute samples of a podcast they’d like to helm. They present it to the class Shark Tank-style, as if the group is going to invest or advertise on their show. It really gives them all a sense of agency over their careers that most actors don’t feel upon entering the real world. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the podcast and the course: we actually did it. Nine episodes of POD115 are on every major podcasting platform and nine students have created their own podcast concepts — some of which are deep into multiple episodes at the time of writing. And now we’re about to repeat it in the fall!
Teaching podcasting to actors is exciting because most of these students are already rabid consumers of podcasts, so the form is familiar to them. When they’re given free rein to create their own production, in their own communities, and really personally invest in the power of their voices, they engage in this thing they’ve been studying to do for years in new ways. Their acting skills give them an edge on mic, and in interviews, and especially storytelling. Podcasting is portable, inexpensive, and relatively easy to produce, so this gives these students skills to create whatever they want without waiting for someone’s permission to do so.
Is this what you thought you’d do when you grew up?
When I got my master’s from the American Conservatory Theater, I didn’t think I’d do any teaching. I felt like such a neophyte — and still do sometimes — in my creative professional work, that the idea of teaching it to anyone else seemed presumptuous on my part. But I did some guest lecturing at Pepperdine and started directing commercials and TV projects and realized I knew more about acting theoretically, practically, and professionally than most people. I guess I’d put in my 10,000 hours (plus another 200,000). But I remember even as a young actor, whenever I read a good book about creativity or a memoir by an actor, I’d make a mental note: “This will be good for me to share with someone else — I wonder if other actors can see Salinger’s Franny and Zooey is really a great guide for their creative work?” So, maybe I’ve always been waiting for my chance to teach.
To be able to create and collaborate on projects of my own while teaching was never something I thought was possible. I’m incredibly grateful to Norma and Dean Nancy Uscher and the theatre department for the opportunity to weave these things together.
Best tip or advice for someone new to UNLV?
I’m always impressed by the diversity of students and faculty at UNLV and the resulting diversity of opportunities on campus. Take advantage of the opportunities presented to you here every day. If you can’t find an opportunity that rings your bell, make it yourself.
What film/show/book makes you cringe over how your field is represented?
It’s hard for civilians to understand that acting is actually very hard and requires a level of dedication that goes completely unseen. The image of the diva actor screaming in their trailer is rare (although I’ve seen it up close and personal). Directing is another world where you’re saddled with an insane amount of responsibility on top of simply filming a story and making sure it makes sense, but directors are generally perceived as power-hungry auteurs. Most creative professionals I know and respect approach their work seriously and with incredible focus. I teach my students that acting and directing is a service job in a service industry. We must serve our story, our characters, our writers, producers, crew members, studios, and audiences first. That helps to get everyone’s egos in check.
What do laypeople usually ask you about your field?
A few months after I met my stepkids and they saw that I’d done some work with which they were familiar, they asked me, quite seriously, “Are you a millionaire?”
Also, most people want to know what any famous person I’ve worked with or know is like in person. The answer is always a let-down.
What is the worst advice you’ve ever received?
“You should go skydiving to get over that girl.”
Tell us about an object in your office and what it represents to you.
The cartoonist Dan Piraro ("Bizarro"), who’s an old friend, would often watch my dog Roscoe in Los Angeles when I had to travel. Once, he made Roscoe the star of one of his panels. When Roscoe died, my step-daughter Millie framed the cartoon for me to have nearby. It’s a pretty powerful reminder of family and humor and how lucky I am.
What can’t you get done remotely that you most want to do?
Working in-person for me is about an exchange of energy, as corny as that sounds. There’s a certain amount of diagnosis an acting teacher must employ in the process of building on a young actor’s skills and talents. That’s harder to achieve remotely. Sitting awkwardly in person as we work on scene or asking questions about story and character can tell you a lot about a young actor’s process. It’s a little clunkier to get to what makes each actor tick via webcams.
What’s the silver lining in all of this for you?
I try to remain optimistic at all times, particularly times of overt stress. A healthy amount of hope has gotten me through a lot personally and professionally. So, shifting gears to teach acting remotely felt, for about 10 minutes, like the end of teaching for me. But I realized how important being able to communicate through lenses and microphones really is for actors, and then everything clicked.
This was a tremendous opportunity for us all to focus on the basics of our work — our stories, our scene partners, our points of view — in order to communicate as effectively as possible. It was also an opportunity for all of us to be disciplined with our focus, our time, and our space. To try to honor the workspace we are using and the work we are doing by carving out periods of silence in our homes, sitting still, actively listening. It’s harder to do at home than in a classroom or theater or studio space.
I’ve also felt optimistic about the power of audio fiction/audio drama as a safe means of production for artists and technicians to continue the process of storytelling in performance while theater and filmmakers are stymied by quarantine restrictions. You can record, direct, and perform stories safely for audio but still include high production value for very low cost and reasonable time commitment in this new environment. Students can see the creative solutions to seemingly insurmountable obstacles and realize that, if they so choose, nothing can stop them.