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Conversations on Creativity with Gary Sinise

Gary Sinise on talent, creativity, and his humanitarian efforts

Gary Sinise is one of the classiest, most talented, and humble actors working in film, television, and theatre today. Gary's acting career is nothing short of remarkable, from playing McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (2001) on Broadway, to directing and starring as George Milton in Of Mice and Men (1992), to playing side-by-side with Tom Hanks both as Lieutenant Dan Taylor in Forrest Gump (1994) and Ken Mattingly in Apollo 13 (1995), to starring in CBS's CSI: NY as Detective Mac Taylor (2004-ongoing). In his long and versatile career, Sinise co-founded the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in the 70's, won an Emmy and a Golden Globe Award, and has been nominated for an Academy Award. His humanitarian efforts are just as impressive as his acting credits: In 2008 Sinise was awarded the Presidential Citizens Medal (the second highest civilian award in the United States) for his work with Iraqi school children and his involvement with the USO

I had the pleasure to speak with Gary.

S. Were you academically gifted as a child?

G. No (chuckles). 

S. Would you say you were a gifted actor? 

G. I was somebody who could not easily sit in a classroom and listen to a lecture by a teacher. That was always difficult for me to do. Academics was something that did not come naturally. I think early on part of the issue was that I didn't learn proper reading skills as a kid, so reading was always difficult for me. And of course, if reading is difficult for you, then studying is going to be miserable.

And so, what I didn't have in academic skills or basic skills I made up for in other ways by just doing things. Like, early on, all the local kids in the neighborhood, I would just organize them all into the baseball game, or the baseball team or the football team or the rock band or whatever. I somehow early on developed these do it yourself sort of leadership skills. I think part of that was that I felt intimidated by kids who were smart in school so I would just make up for it by bossing them around.

S. I imagine those organizational skills really helped you when you formed the Steppenwolf Theatre.

S. I imagine those organizational skills really helped you when you formed the Steppenwolf Theatre.

G. Yea. I wasn't the artistic director at the beginning, but then I became the artistic director and just started leading the company in the way that came natural to me. It proved to be effective.

S. What would you say you learned about the nature of talent working with aspiring actors at Steppenwolf?

G. I learned everything about acting from working with the other folks in the company early on. I think we all did. I didn't go to college. I just started the theatre when I got out of High School but the other two founders of the company, Jeff Perry and Terry Kinney, they both went to college, Illinois State University and studied there, and they certainly learned some great things there. I learned in a different way. I just learned by doing it, by acting. And when the theatre company started growing and I was working with Terry and Jeff and my wife to be, we got married back in the 80's, Moira Harris, and working with Joan Allen and Laurie Metcalfe and John Malkovich and all these great people, we were all learning together and just kind of flying by the seat of our pants and just making it up as we went along. But I think we all learned a whole lot of great stuff.

S. You know, that's really interesting because there's a large literature in my field on what is called ‘group creativity', taking the emphasis away from the individual and what they can do, and looking at what the group can do. It seems like that is a good example of that.

Well, Steppenwolf was very much like that. Early on, we tried to be this little commune, where we could make all these decisions together. But that only goes so far before you start discovering that you are unable to make a decision because there are too many opinions. So leaders have to emerge. But what we were able to do is find a way for leaders to emerge, to be strong, to take initiative, to direct while at the same time use all the information that they had and the talent that they had at our disposal there, and we were able to focus the group into a direction. Early on, we were just kids all just wanting to do plays and everything.

S. It's interesting that you used the word "talent". Do you think acting can be taught or are there definitely individual differences in people's natural proclivity for acting?

G. It's a combination of both. A good teacher recognizes each individual and their individual gifts and is able to bring out the best in them by giving them the instruction that that particular person needs. That's what a good director can do, recognize that this person needs to be directed this way, this person needs to be directed that way to get the best out of them. Then there are those who are going to teach their method, their thing, and you're certainly going to get something out of that as well, but we were able to recognize that each individual had a special thing that they did and we would capitalize on that and make the most of it while at the same time choreograph our season and our play selection around the group ethic. We wanted to get everyone on stage as much as possible at the same time. We would look for plays that were great ensemble pieces, that had a lot of good parts in it.

S. In your estimate, what set of skills do you think comprise great acting?

G. Look, there are some wonderful actors who have never had a lesson in their life. They just have an intuitive sense of how to do it. Frank Sinatra was a wonderful presence and performer, but he never really had any acting lessons. Probably acting lessons would have ruined his thing! Now, he's not necessarily known as one of our great American actors of all time, but if you look at Sinatra there is something so charismatic and captivating about him, plus he's just so extremely talented. But when he started doing movies no one wanted to quite mess with what he did, because he just had this natural gift.

Then there's other people who went to Yale and studied with this person and studied with that person, Yale school of Drama has produced a ton of great people. And then there are folks who just go out there, they take a bunch of great classes, they start getting jobs and boom boom boom and there they go. Everyone has a different path and a different way that they do it and I don't think there's one method of producing a great actor that is better than another.

S. You contribute to things like Operation Iraqi Children and the Disabled Veterans' Life Memorial. What are some ways people can support these initiatives if they want to?

G. Both of those are not timetable related so they're just ongoing efforts. On the American Veterans Disabled For Life Memorial, we're actually going to finally break ground after a long, long effort. I've been involved with the Disabled American Veterans Association since 1994 trying to get this memorial built that will honor all our disabled veterans and involved in this memorial effort for about the past 5 or 6 years as a national spokesperson. We've been raising money, a significant amount of money, and we are finally at the point where on November 10th we're going to break ground in Washington, D.C. at a location that is almost just adjacent to the capital building, so you could actually in some parts of the capital building look out and see the memorial from the building where it's going to be. But this is an ongoing effort, we still have  to raise a fairly significant amount of money, but we have raised enough to get to the point where we can break ground. Anybody who is interested in supporting this initiative to build this national monument to honor the sacrifices of those who have been injured and wounded and severely disabled in service to our country can go to the American Veterans Disabled for Life Memorial Foundation website

S. I know you were looking to raise a certain amount of money for the Memorial. Have you reached that target?

G. No. We've been in an effort to raise 65 million dollars over the past several years but now we are at the tail end. We still have another 3 to 4 million dollars we need to raise.

S. I'll definitely put the word out there.

G. That would be terrific. When you go to the website, if you click on the link and everything, you can see the whole memorial and what's it going to look like. And look, for someone who has lost 3 limbs or 4 limbs or is paralyzed from the neck down because they went to war for our country, this is going to mean a lot to them and their families, who have to live with these injuries for the rest of their lives.

S. You have been referred to as the most underrated person in the world. I don't know if you're aware of that title.

G. What!!?

S. People do mention that! Something people mention about you is your humility and how you help people but don't do it in a bragging sort of way. How do you keep your humility? Was that something that was instilled in you from your parents?

G. Well, it's not something I think that much about. It's just, your environment, your background tends to instill certain values in you and if you have those early on you don't lose sight of those. You carry them throughout your life. I come from a family where my dad was always working and my Mom was very there for me all the time. I went through a lot of crazy stuff but always tried to pay attention what other people were doing and what was important to other folks. Like I said, I came from an ensemble background where the group and the direction and the focus and the building of the group into a strong theatre company was the primary goal and if it was all about me at that time or all about one individual we would have not have succeeded as an ensemble in that way. So I learned a lot about listening to other people. I think that a part of being a good leader is being open to listening to other people but also being able to make strong decisions. I think I've learned a lot about that over the years and when you go out and do other things that are not related to acting and you see people with suffering and I see a lot of wounded soldiers and banged up people and people who are going through difficult times, kids with no shoes, it's not hard to be grateful for what you have. That's an important thing to always remember.

S. You mentioned in an interview with Charlie Rose that most people tend to wrestle with a lack of self-esteem and a lack of self-confidence. I was wondering if this is something you have ever had to wrestle with in your life?

Yea, sure. And maybe early on, as I said. Part of me making up for the lack of self-confidence was just getting in the trenches and just getting my hands dirty. I never felt as though I academically knew what was going on, and I never went to college, and I struggled all the way through High School studying and that kind of thing. And so I would just sort of make up for it just by doing some heavy lifting and I think maybe that made me stronger.

© 2010 Scott Barry Kaufman

Notes: Watch Gary in the CSI Season Premier on September 24th. Thanks to James C. Kaufman for suggesting the question about group creativity.