Jason Alexander, the “Seinfeld” star and Tony Award-winning Broadway actor, wears a beige tweed coat low on his shoulders and speaks with a confidence that seems worlds away from his notorious television alter-ego, George Costanza. His teenage son, who accompanied him on the trip, chats with a few Folklore and Mythology professors in the adjacent room. They later tell us that our laughs were impressively loud coming through the Warren House’s burly 19th century walls.
1. Fifteen Minutes: You attended Boston University as an undergraduate from 1977 to 1980 but dropped out the summer before your senior year. What prompted you to leave college?
Jason Alexander: It was a combination of a decision and an inescapable series of events. I finished my junior year, and the summer after my junior year I did a film that ran late. When I missed the first two weeks of school, I called all of my advisors and they said, “Not a problem, but you probably should take a semester off.” And I moved to New York because I didn’t want to go back home. And then a series of things happened: I met the girl who would eventually be my wife and I was cast in the show that would become my Broadway debut. I just started getting work, and that’s when my college advisors said, “We’re teaching you how to have a career. You have a career. Why would you come back?” And I was very lucky and just kept working steadily and never came back.
2. FM: When you were young, you aspired to be a professional magician, but you tabled that dream realizing the need for a more lucrative career with greater chance of success. How in God’s name did acting appeal as a career with greater chance of success?
JA: No. [laughs] Well, a greater chance of success, yes, but it had nothing to do with lucrative—I was a very serious student of magic. I wanted to be a close-up magician, and I studied with a man who was profoundly good. He assessed me, though, and said, “You’re going to have a lot of trouble being a close up magician.” Whenever I try to palm a standard playing card you can always see a corner peeking out from one side or the other...I also have short stubby fingers, too, and you need long ones for coin manipulation. The observation was: this is not going to work for you. And by sheer accident, right after that revelation, my family and I moved a couple of towns over. And the first people that met me were the theater kids who were desperate for one more kid to be in a production they were doing. So that was my instant community. I had never thought about theater, I had never done theater before that. But that’s how I got sucked in. And I quickly realized that theater was in and of itself an illusion. It was just a different kind of magic trick.
3. FM: Much of the humor of “Seinfeld” came from the characters’ wild tirades about apparent trivialities. Would you say it’s made you more inclined to get frustrated about inane or petty things, or at least more aware of them?
JA: Having spent nine years with Larry and Jerry, I think I’m more able to understand what fuels it. I think the brilliance of both of those guys is that they can look at things that you and I look at all the time and they see possibilities; I don’t see those possibilities. I’ll give you the perfect example: the first time I really thought, “Oh my god, Jerry Seinfeld is brilliant” was when he did a joke about newspapers, and how relieved the editors of a newspaper must be when exactly the right amount of things happen everyday to make the paper come out perfectly, so that at six o’clock at their deadline, you don’t go, “Oh, one more thing happened,” and now you have a blank page with two paragraphs.When these guys look at the world and everything in it with the possibility of what’s odd, unusual, or funny about that. Or what are the things we don’t realize...I am more aware of what we think of as petty, inane, silly, stupid. I just don’t have the genius they have for articulating and making fun of them.
4. FM: How long did the new addition to the Guggenheim actually take?
JA: [Laughs] Well, my work on it was a one-stop thing. I thought about it for 10 minutes, wrote down my plans, and that was it. The rest of it took years.
FM: Thanks for that. If you had a dollar for every time someone made that kind of joke around you, would you have more or less money than the combined royalties of all the Seinfeld cast members?
JA: Oh I’m sure I’d have much more. If I could just be paid for every time somebody yells, “George,” just “George,” I’d be doing very very very well. “Shrinkage” would come in second, by the way.
5. FM: What was it like to sing the infamous George Costanza answering machine jingle given your actual musicality and Broadway-renown singing ability?
JA: It was extremely hard. In fact it took a very long time because Larry kept saying, “You’re singing it too well.” It became about how to misphrase it, how to breathe in the wrong places. What you find with singers, no matter where they’re from, if they have any kind of an accent, the accent tends to disappear when they sing. I couldn’t do that for George; his New York accent had to come through. It took about three hours to record that damn thing.
6. FM: What was Stephen Sondheim’s opinion of you when you worked with him on Broadway?
JA: He’s been very complimentary of me. In his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” it’s a review of his work on his own lyrics. He talks about his experience with each of his shows, and he has a lot of interesting things to say about “Merrily We Roll Along,” but one of his criticisms is that he thought essentially its one flaw was casting younger actors in adult roles was that they couldn’t really play anything except essentially who they are. “But,” he writes in that book, “with one notable exception, a very young Jason Alexander, who at age 20 played a middle aged man better than anybody I know.”