June 19th, 2015
You can see him in the current blockbuster comedy, “Spy.” In the last post I told about my ten years of working with Mitch on short films. Here’s my interview with him from last week. He talks about working with Melissa McCarthy, learning from Charles Nelson Reilly, and calling Helen Keller a bitch.
MITCH SILPA as an incredibly bad version of street magician David Blaine in a video that became one of the first viral videos ever and eventually scored over 40 million views on YouTube.
RO: How much did you enjoy being in the new blockbuster comedy, “Spy”?
MS: It was so much fun — it’s totally a fun movie, Melissa’s great in it, Rose Byrne is hilarious, and Jason Statham is surprising how funny he is. The premiere was so crazy — I’m like there with all these mega-stars — like Jude Law is standing there right next to me — I can’t talk to him — he’s like Jude Law. And Susan Sarandon comes up and says, “You were very funny,” and my head wants to explode.
RO: Tell me about performing with Melissa McCarthy over the years in the Groundlings.
MS: The thing about Melissa is her ferocity and commitment to performing — she will do anything. She wrote a scene for just her and me where I was a bank loan officer and she wanted to get a loan to start a “pizza eating business.” Her character would be — you know how when people end up not eating the crusts — she would come over to your house and eat all the rest of the pizza for you. To watch Melissa every night — to watch this woman every fucking night go after this pizza to demonstrate her technique — like the cheese and the mushrooms would fly off it onto the floor — and to watch her dive onto the floor and eat all of it off the floor — that’s my favorite memory of Melissa, she would do whatever’s needed to make anything funny, to get the laughs — to watch her eat pieces of pizza off the floor — the laughs she would get — she’s so ballsy.
(MY NOTE: I have a buddy who long ago did stand up comedy on Sunset Strip with Jim Carrey before he became famous. He said they used to watch Jim flop around on the stage with so much energy and commitment they would all say to each other, “we’re not that good — we can’t give as much to the performance — we knew he was headed to a higher place than the rest of us.” It’s interesting the similarity of comments for these two eventual superstar comedians about their level of commitment from the start.)
RO: What are the funniest skits you’ve ever been in?
MS: There’s a scene in the current show I love doing where I play this very gay kid in high school — they have to do a report on their most inspiring American and he picked Helen Keller, and he didn’t do any reading on her, but he saw the movie about her, so it’s basically a monologue, but it’s so much fun to do because he’s got some of the information right, and he thinks she’s a badass. So he gets to the part with her teacher and everyone calls everyone else a bitch — “oh, bitch, listen to me” — it’s so much fun to call Helen Keller a bitch.
Another of my favorite skits was years ago where Jim Cashman and I were these two gay school kids who were friends — it was called “Poof” — the parents were Melissa McCarthy and Ben Falcone and Wendi-McClendon Covey and Nat Faxon — and we were their sons. We would come in and do magic tricks, only — after every trick Jim and I would kiss. The parents loved having us do the magic tricks but they didn’t want us to kiss, so it was like really a scene about these kids being gay where the parents kept telling the kids they don’t want them to do any more magic when what they mean is they don’t want them to be gay.
RO: Tell me about the David Blaine legacy.
MS: We did four of those films where I play David Blaine. I’m always surprised anyone ever even knows it was me — I was wearing a hat, a wig, and a drawn-on mustache. It’s weird how things are connected — even getting the part in “Bridesmaids” — both the Director Paul Feig and the producer Judd Apatow — they knew the David Blaine video, so when Kristen Wiig recommended me they were like, “oh, that guy, okay.”
RO: Where did you do your training?
MS: I got my MFA at UCLA, then I got out of school and started taking classes around Hollywood. I used to study with Charles Nelson Reilly. I know he was always known for things like The Match Game, but he was an amazingly trained actor. He studied with Uta Hagen, he won Tony Awards, he directed — when Julie Harris did shows she would only work with him. I met him because I was in a staged reading he directed. He would teach classes super cheap because he knew actors don’t have money. And you would learn so much — he knew what the fuck he was talking about — and it was fun, but he was also really hard on people.
The thing Charles told us — and this is kind of brilliant — was that when you have the script — everything that is in black, the print, is what the writer brings you. Everything in white is what the actor brings you. It’s like a big canvas. Isn’t that a great image. He was fucking great. The way I teach I hear him coming through me. He would also make fun of people — “What the FUCK are you doing?” You know how when actors in a scene say they have to leave and look at their watch — he would go, “You don’t know what time it is — you looked at your watch, but you faked it — WHAT TIME IS IT???” He would nail you if you bullshitted.
RO: You’ve trained lots in improv, and you’ve trained lots of people — how do you see improv change people?
MS: To be a good improviser you have to learn to give up control because you can’t plan anything — usually you’re making up a scene with somebody else so you have to trust them — so you see people learning to really let go — because, face it, we ALL have trust issues — so you see people have to trust the unknown or the gray area more, which I think helps you in life more.
One of the best things improv can teach you is how to listen — to really listen to everything and notice everything that’s going on. And that transfers over to life in general — to be a better person and listen to people. Improv makes you listen because if you don’t listen, the moment goes by, you didn’t hear it, the audience heard it and it’s gone.
RO: What does “Yes, and …” mean to you?
MS: Do you mean in improv or in life in general? It’s the foundation of improv. It is very difficult to move a scene forward by saying no. It’s really the basis of how kids play when they make up things — I’m gonna date myself — like when they play “cowboys and indians” — if I said I’m a cowboy and you’re an indian, and you said no, I’m not an indian then you’re no fun to play with. If you say, yes, I’m an indian, then we can add to that which is fun.
Companies hire the Groundlings to do improv training. They find “yes, and …” to be valuable for team building — for building on an idea. If someone had an idea, instead of saying “no” and killing it, you say “yes” and build on it.
RO: Do you see a difference between introverts and extroverts — who takes to improv more quickly?
MS: Surprisingly I don’t see a pattern. I feel like the perception of the Groundlings — certainly when I was a student and would go to shows — everyone thinks, “Oh, what a bunch of extroverts,” or “ they seem so fun and everyone loves each other.” But actually, most of the Groundlings I know that I’ve been performing with for years have a lot of social anxiety. They’re not great at parties when they don’t know people. They’re probably more shy than you realize. And maybe part of the reason they gravitate towards performing is because they love getting on stage — you can be fearless on stage, you can disappear in other people.
The people who struggle with the Groundlings — and this is a generalization — are the people who come from stand up because it’s a different mentality. In stand up it’s all about control — you control the audience, you have to be in control, and you work by yourself as you go for the joke. In improv you have to give up control — its not about working by yourself, it’s not about going for the joke — it’s just working with another person in going for the truth.