By Gary Wien
Kevin Pollak has captured the attention of audiences worldwide with his range of both dramatic and comedic roles. Over the past two decades, he has appeared in over fifty films, as well as countless television projects, and has established himself as one of the few stand-up comedians to have a successful dramatic film career. In addition to his acting talents, he has also proven himself as both a writer and producer. He will be performing his stand-up act at the Rahway High School (1012 Madison Avenue) in Rahway on May 12th.
I finally get the chance to talk to the man who started war with Canada...
Well... you know, I just had a little helping hand.
You had stopped doing stand-up for a while didn't you?
Yeah, it coordinated with two things. It was the early 90s and the goldrush of stand-up (the mid to late 80s) was finally over. Things were drying up in terms of numbers of clubs. It was sort of imploding on itself because it had become very saturated. And also "A Few Good Men" came out around the same time. And, although I was 'Where's Waldo?' in the cast, I was hitting at least a stand up double surrounded by major movie stars. Suddenly I was the one people didn't recognize and they were saying who the hell is this guy?
So, that kind of thrust you to better scripts?
Yeah, I went practically overnight from having to audition to getting offers. That was about 46 movies ago.
What brought you back to stand-up? Were you kind of itching to get back on stage?
It had been almost ten years. I had done corporate gigs each of those years but I hadn't toured or really put together a new act. I hadn't done any clubs or theaters. I would just wheel out the tired old act for these corporate dates while I was doing movies. So, even though I wasn't active, I hadn't turned my back on it completely.
It got to the point where there was a resurgence of people asking me when I was going to do stand-up again or was going to tour. It just started to build to a groundswell and then I put together a new act. That got me excited because it's a very daunting process but when you actually accomplish it, it's unbelievably exciting. It involved not only the impersonations but suddenly I had all these first hand anecdotes from working with these people. Instead of just doing a (Jack) Nicholson impression, I would tell the story in my act where my Mom came to visit the set of "A Few Good Men" and ended up hitting on Jack Nicholson. So it sort of satisified the audiences' need for me to do impersonations in my act and the public interest / occasional fascination with what it's like in show business.
You started out doing comedy as a teenager, were you doing impressions from the beginning?
No, I lip synched Bill Cosby's first album. That was my first act. Apparently it's a long-standing tradition because I later found out that years ago Jerry Lewis lip synched Danny Kaye. Anyways, when I was 10 and lip synching I thought I had invented a new game. Nobody told me what lip synching was. I was just sitting in front of the stereo and nobody else was around. The next thing I know I was on stage and that's how it all got started.
When did you first realize you could pick up the mannerisms of people and do impressions?
It's a freak act of nature gift. It just sort of came out one day. I was hanging out with my friends coming out of a movie and just trying to be funny. I was impersonating someone from the movie and everybody went 'wow, that actually sounds like him.' It wasn't something I actually sat down and decided to do or studied audio or video tape. It's a gift and a curse...
Some people do impressions and some take it a bit farther with the face and the mannerisms of the person they're impersonating. Is that something you consciously have to do or do you just sort of get into the role?
It's the only way I know how to do it. It's a physical transformation that makes me sort of feel like the person and that enables me to do their voice. I don't know if someone forced me to stand still and not make a face if I could even do the voice quite frankly.
Definitely not with something like Captain Kirk...
No, there's no way to do Shatner without wild over the top, unexplainable gesturings.
Is it true that when you were a young comic The Tonight Show wanted you but you didn't want to be just another comic, you wanted to wait until Johnny had you as a guest on the couch? That was pretty ballsy.
Well to clarify it was the gate keeper of the Tonight Show - the actual segment producer whose job was to go out to clubs and see comics and decide when to pluck them from obscurity and give them the opportunity of a lifetime of being on the Tonight Show. It wasn't Carson himself who asked me to do the show... If he had asked me personally, I would have said 'yes sir, right away sir!'
And can I get you some coffee with that?
Yeah! I mean when the gatekeeper asked me - although there was tremendous pressure because this guy even though this guy didn't really make careers himself when he chose you, you felt knighted.
I just knew that I would have a greater impact doing my impressions sitting on the couch next to Johnny in terms of how it might affect my career. I just felt it. And also I was young enough to have more courage than perhaps sense.
Plus I told the guy 'look, I may change my mind in six hours and beg for the chance again! But, as for now, I really feel that I need to go for it.'
I knew he couldn't bring me out to the couch because there's a whole protocol. I just said I was willing to wait until I had a tv show or a movie to promote. And when I said that I had no prospects for either a tv show or a movie or an audition for either a tv show or movie! I was just a comedian struggling to find auditions.
About a year later this movie came out that I was in that Ron Howard directed and George Lucas produced called "Willow."
Do you see any comedians on the circuit today that are keeping up the tradition of impressions or is that becoming a lost art?
I think this guy Frank Caliendo certainly suggests that it's not a lost art. It was always kind of an oddity, even when I was coming up. There weren't twenty guys who did impressions. It my seem like there were more back then though.
Maybe because those who do impressions do so many.
Yeah, that might be it.
Guys like Rich Little... didn't he do hundreds of people?
And none of them funny! But yes... many voices.
How did you eventually break into movies?
Hundreds of auditions. That's really all it came down to. I had no formal training as an actor. I had basically no business being in these movies, but through determination and all the rejection that I had to endure... Literally hundreds - after a while it feels like they're not just saying no, they're saying how about anyone but you! It really feels that way. It's nearly impossible to be told you're a piece of shit day after day, year after year. Imagine that's part of your job. A lot of people take abuse from their boss but to be told you're worthless after the way you gear up for an audition, it's quite an ordeal.
I guess being on the comedy club circuit probably prepares you better than anything.
I think so. I think dealing with hecklers and being told 'you suck, get off' early in my career helped me a great deal. No question.
Now that you've built up such an impressive film resume, do you still see yourself as a comedian first or are you an actor or do you see yourself as a little of both?
Well, because I still feel like I'm going to get caught as a comedian posing as an actor, there's no question that I'm a comedian first.
For more information visit www.kevinpollak.net
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.