Actor, comedian and impressionist extraordinaire Kevin Pollak has starred in more than 80 films. His work currently includes playing Moishe Maisel in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” on Amazon Prime and also doing Alchemy This, a podcast featuring five improv comedians.
The 63-year-old actor will make a community appearance when he headlines Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s 11th annual Night of the Stars via Zoom on May 6 at 7:30 p.m. The fundraising event — chaired by BHC members Brett Cohen, Amy Baum and Lisa Levy — will benefit BHC’s E.B. Hirsch Early Childhood Education Center and Youth Education. Tickets are $75 and $200 (the latter includes a pickup dinner for two).
Pollak was scheduled to appear at BHC last year, but the event was cancelled due to COVID-19.
He spoke to our sister publication, the Baltimore Jewish Times, about his work, his cats and the recent loss of his mother, Elaine Harlow.
Tell us more about the magic in what you do, what inspires you and how you keep it all fun?
We are coming on the 30th Anniversary of “A Few Good Men.” Rob Reiner, who directed the film, announced one day, “If you are not having fun, I don’t know what the point is.” And that really resonated with me. That was, what, 80 movies ago?
What inspires you?
True life stories. A great idea for my stand-up or script comes from life stories these days, and I’ll put that in my notes app, one of those modern conveniences that simplify life.
For example, I look at today’s phones and wonder, “How the hell did we miss the push buttons to begin with?” The rotary phone seems so archaic now. The idea of a push button pad of what is now known as a landline — why wasn’t it always like that? These little, tiny life questions like that stay with me.
Is it fair to say that comedy is still your first love?
Comedy is my first love for sure. When I was 5 or 6 years old, my mom would take me to the movies, and I became engrossed in the world represented on the screen, and when I left the theater, I would play act as though I was living in the movie. It had a deep effect on my psyche because I carry that with me to this day.
Your first podcast, Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show, lasted 10 years, and you are now doing another podcast, Alchemy This. Can you tell us more about the podcast and the magic you find in the process?
The chat show was really about people’s journey — how did you get from there to here. So when I started doing Alchemy This, a theme suggested by fans, we gathered suggestions from emails, as a way to prep the show. I wanted to cast the show with the fastest improvisers I’ve seen in LA. We’ve been doing Alchemy This for two and a half years now. It’s incredibly fun and completely improvised. It’s a great creative outlet, like stand-up comedy, which has been a ghost town for the last 15 months.
What drives you to stay busy, to keep comedy at the forefront of what you do?
A good 15 years ago I came up with a mantra, “If you are not creating, you are waiting.” So I became more proactive in my career. I’ve been a writer for a long time, writing stories. I love writing, might be my favorite thing to do, and that fueled this notion if you are not creating, you are waiting.
I’ve been reading “How I Slept My Way to the Middle: Secrets And Stories From Stage, Screen, And Interwebs.” You wrote the book in 2012. If you were writing the book today, would you choose a different title?
It’s a show business term, not meant to be demeaning to say about something. But for a character that has had one love scene in 80 movies, it seemed funny. But today … I am working on a new project, an audio book, for audible.com, the ultimate joke book, street jokes, that start with “Did you hear the one about … two Jews walk into a bar, they buy it” as a punch line. These street jokes are ultimately offensive to someone. We can’t worry about that, and we’ll put a disclaimer about that, “If you are easily offended, good for you, I don’t want to hear about it. And please know ahead of time that none of these jokes are opinions or even facts, truths of any kind.”
Tell us about your mom and her influence in your career.
My mom was my first audience and remained my best audience. Thankfully, her biggest contribution was how supportive she was from the very beginning. In 2015, I did a documentary, “Misery Loves Comedy,” where I ask, “Who’s your mommy and or daddy? Were your parents supportive?” I just know how lucky I was that my mom was so supportive from the very beginning.
I read that you grew up in Reform Judaism. Can you tell us more about that?
Yes, I was bar mitzvahed, and I went to religious school on Saturdays. We were California Reform Jews, which means we were almost Catholic. … There was a slow building of a pride of being Jewish, what it meant for family and friends and the holidays, learning about the sacrifices, the oppression, the anti-Semitism.
Comedy Central named you as one of the Top 100 Comedians of all time. In a 1994 interview with Rich Eisen, you said that you had crossed the goal line to getting offers in films. Once you cross that line, how do you stay grounded?
I would attribute that to my mom, and also how one is raised. Show biz is a bizarre undertaking. A lot of your dreams are being fulfilled, and I didn’t see this coming, I have succeeded beyond my dreams. And even though there are a lot of great actors and comedians who have succeeded beyond my plateau, there is a sense of gratitude, instilled by my parents, to be grateful for the fruits of your labor, and also for your labor, to be able to work, in any capacity. I don’t have to beg for this part. That is a goal or a threshold I am so grateful for, and it contributes to my disposition immensely.
Do you still believe that doing impressions are a way of hiding? If so, why?
When I started as a comedian, I did not want to have to be on stage and not be myself and be exposed to rejection, and so I did impressions. I have debunked the art [of] impersonation.
Can you explain more?
Doing an impersonation is a parlor trick. I will steal the affection you have for the actual person. It took me 25 years to realize that. Initially it was to protect my own vulnerability, being on stage.
How old is your cat, Andy? Where did you get him, and can you share something quirky about him?
Andy is two-and-a-half years old. Jamie — my partner — and I adopted him from a shelter at 10 weeks of age. We also have another cat, Edie, who’s 18. Andy was named for Andy Warhol, and Edie for Edie Sedgwick. Something quirky about him? Let’s see, do you have cats?
My mom died three months ago and left me her four cats.
Oh, I am sorry, my Mom died two months ago. It’s brutal, isn’t it?
Yes, it is brutal. I am so sorry about your mom. Can you share how you are coping with her loss? When did she pass?
She died on February 24, 2021. It was the last Saturday in February. She was shy of 90. I don’t know that I am coping other than not stopping and dwelling and sitting shiva or mourning in a concentrated effort. The idea was more of a celebration of someone’s life. It didn’t come as a devastating surprise. She had been having some health issues and was in hospice, and there is no exit strategy from hospice, so it allowed for a reflective couple of weeks to prepare. But there is no question that she left this earthly plain, but man oh does she remain in my thoughts daily. She is so present in a celebratory way.
A version of this article was originally published in the April 30, 2021, edition of Baltimore Jewish Times, a sister publication of Baltimore Style.