Alan Alda Talks About Coating Villains In ‘The Slime Of Amiability’ & The Importance Of Empathy As A Performer - Part 2

The legendary actor talked hosting a 'M.A.S.H.' reunion on his 'Clear + Vivid' podcast and about life as a constant learning process.

Alan Alda speaks at the 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival.
Eugene Gologursky / Getty Images

The legendary actor talked hosting a 'M.A.S.H.' reunion on his 'Clear + Vivid' podcast and about life as a constant learning process.

DM: You’ve been open about your mother and the mental illness, and I’m wondering if that’s almost what taught you that focus, saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want this, I want something different?’

AA: I don’t know. In spite of the fact that she was mentally ill, she was a very loving mother and she sometimes expressed it in odd ways, but she tried to always encourage me and tried to let me know that I was able to do anything I wanted to do, and I actually believed that. So, I often take on tasks that seem daunting, if not impossible, and then have the confidence that it’ll work out. That probably comes from her a little bit.

DM: Is that hard to reconcile? On one hand, thankfully, she gave you that encouragement, but on the other hand, you had to deal with the mental illness?

AA: You know, growing up with a mother who’s ill before you can understand that she’s actually ill and doesn’t mean to hurt your feelings when she accuses you of trying to kill her… before you understand that, it’s difficult to feel warmth towards that person, but as you get older and you get more mature, you understand that it’s not her fault that she was ill and that it was, in fact, just an illness. It’s been a process for me of understanding that she loved me the best that she could.

DM: Yeah, it must have been really hard going through that at a young age, not knowing or not understanding and wondering ‘What do I have to look forward to as I get older?’

AA: For me, it was a long process of understanding. All I was aware of as a kid was that I didn’t really have a mother and always wished I had, and I never understood people who had. As a teenager, if I’d hear that people had a wonderful mother, I would think they were kidding because I couldn’t imagine a childhood different from my own. So it took a long time for me to realize that she wasn’t a bad person, she was just like me, she was coping with what nature had given her and she was doing the best she could. I think, fairly late in life, I think I finally understood it in my 50s.

US actor and director Alan Alda with English actress Maggie Smith at the Cafe Royal, London.
  Colin Davey / Getty Images

DM: Really? Your 50s is not the answer I was expecting.

AA: Yeah, I mean until then there was a slight feeling of resentment which, you know, it’s hard to say it was wrong because it was just the reaction I had, but it took me a long time to grow out of that reaction. Some people never grow out of it. I’m lucky that I got a little wisdom and could because I’ve met people who are still mad at their parents at the age of 70 and 80.

DM: So there is still continual growth on such issues?

AA: Well, I think if you’re looking for growth, it doesn’t just fall on you from heaven.

DM: You know, it’s interesting. I asked some friends, ‘What questions would you want me to ask Alan Alda,’ and the universal response made me say, ‘You could ask him, because…’ The summary of the best one was my friend Anna wrote, ‘When I hear Alan Alda talk, it sounds like a warm hug,’ and it almost seemed to illustrate the role you have with people.

AA: Well, what’s the question in there?

DM: I asked simply, ‘What should I say to him,’ and it was funny. Universally, everyone said that: ‘thank you, thank you, thank you.’

AA: Well, that’s nice. So, my answer is ‘Thank you.’ Glad to hear it.

DM: I found that role interesting, because everyone, of course, knows you from ‘M.A.S.H.’ playing Hawkeye, but the description is always one of love and comfort, but it wasn’t as if this character Hawkeye was a Buddhist monk who was calm all the time. He was dealing with his own issues. How did that come out?

AA: No, as a matter of fact, it was hard for me to figure out how I was going to play Hawkeye because he was so different from me, and right up until the second before I went out of the tin building for my first shot playing Hawkeye, I still didn’t think I knew how to do it and I just leapt into it.

It’s funny, I seem to have registered on people not only as the characters I’ve played, and they’ve all been pretty different, but also as myself, I guess in interviews or what people read about me. I don’t really know. It’s interesting and hard to understand the relationship between somebody who’s well known and the rest of the world.

American actor, director and writer Alan Alda in the driving seat of a jeep, surrounded by Loretta Swit and other cast members of the hit television show M.A.S.H, in costume as members of a US Army medical corp.
  Keystone / Getty Images

DM: But you do have an interesting juxtaposition though, it sounds like, in that your character’s not always ‘a warm hug.’

AA: No. Whenever I play a villain, a really bad guy, people say, ‘Well, you’ve never done that before,’ and most of the people I play have flaws of one kind or another, including Hawkeye. But, I guess I covered them with the slime of my amiability so much that they’re not aware, even if I string somebody up to have them tortured, they don’t think I’m such a bad guy.

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