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In this captivating podcast episode, Zander Sprague, the charismatic host of Epic Begins with One Step Forward, engages in an epic conversation with Kelly Perine. From reminiscing about college days to navigating the challenges of a Hollywood career, Kelly shares insights into his journey. The episode unfolds as a blend of humor, anecdotes, and profound reflections, exploring the essence of an epic career in the entertainment industry. With 26 years of experience, Kelly unveils the secrets behind sustaining a successful acting career and the importance of finding one’s unique voice.

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Sustaining A Successful Acting Career With Kelly Perine, Part 1

In this episode, we are having an epic conversation with Kelly Perine. To give you a little background, I’ve known Kelly for more years than Kelly and I are going to admit, but we have known each other since college. I went to Pitzer College. Kelly went to Pomona. Kelly is a force.

When we went to school, even though we went to different schools, all the schools were right there next to each other. As much time as I spent at Pomona, I picture doing things without a box and hanging out with a bunch of my friends. There’s an all-women college called Scripps that I was trying to spend time at. I didn’t come into my own until after college, but our college experience was fantastic. We got to know each other. It has been a minute, but we’re holding up. We’re looking good, I’d like to think.

I’d like to believe that. I get to say that if I got carted and went to a bar and they say, “Sorry, you can’t come in,” I’d believe that because I have a hard time believing the number attached to me right now.

I know you’re rocking the dome. I love it. Usually, I do too, but I’ve been letting it go since the pandemic. I’m going to try to let it go. I can’t lie to you. Every other day, I’m like, “I got to cut it.” It looks like I got Buckwheat in a headlock but I’m going to try to keep it. I’m going to try to go with it. I’m going to use it for a character or something because it takes seconds to cut and months to grow. I’ll probably look like you very soon when I get my next job.

It is looking good.

 

EPIC Begins With 1 Step Forward | Successful Acting Career

 

I’ll take that.

Who Is Kelly Perine?

Kelly, can you maybe share with our readers a brief history of who is Kelly Perine and what your career has been?

How far back do you want me to go? I’ll give you a quick background. I’m originally from Pennsylvania State College. My dad taught at Penn State. My dad was a professor of Adolescent Psychology, but he also did musical theater. I had been on the stage acting, singing, dancing, and doing all that since I was 4 or 5. However, I wasn’t here in Hollywood. I was there in Pennsylvania. It wasn’t like I was a Hollywood kid chasing Hollywood dreams. I was a central Pennsylvania kid doing Community Theater with 27 old people in there. What did I know? It was awesome and I knew very young that I loved the attention, both positive and negative.

The beautiful thing about the theater is you get that immediate reaction. You get the feedback and attention. I always liked the interaction. I was the class clown. I wasn’t bad in school in that I was stabbing kids in the bathroom, but I was talkative. I’d like to be the focus of attention. I grew up doing a lot of theater. I went to high school outside of Chicago, where I continued to do theater.

The beautiful thing about the theater is that you get that immediate reaction, feedback, attention, and interaction.

I went to a place called Lake Forest Academy. In my senior year, my parents had moved to San Diego. When I was looking at colleges, I was looking at schools all in California. I looked at Claremont College. I looked at Pitzer. I looked at Pomona. I looked at Stanford. I looked at a number of different schools, but when I got into Pomona, I was like, “Alright,” and that’s it.

Going to Pomona was fantastic because it was small enough for me to get around and get to know everybody. Where I went to high school, I was one of 72 in my graduating class. We had 10 to 14 kids in a class. I remember that in my freshman year at Pomona, there were 70 kids in a physics class. I’m like, “What the heck? Get out of the room. You can’t learn with this many. Get out.” Also, remember, I came from Chicago and I went to boarding school with a shirt and tie every day.

I was the same thing.

I came to California. I went to school, and people were wearing flip-flops and shorts. I’m like, “You can’t learn in flip-flops. Go put on some penny loafers.” By the second year, I’m in a tank top. I’m in flip-flops. I got my Birkenstocks. It takes no time at all to get acquainted with the weather in California and the Californian lifestyle. Coming here to California to Pomona, I started doing a lot of improv comedy and I was in a troop called Without a Box, where I was one of the founding members.

I have a funny story about that.

We had a great time doing improv, and that’s where I became aware and felt comfortable enough to take strong chances in theater and in life because there’s a saying in improv. You say, “Yes, and.” You never deny. You always heighten it. You take it to the next thing, so you have to listen very intently to see what the person you’re interacting with is saying and you have to add to it. You can’t be timid. You can’t be shy.

There Are No Bad Choices, Only Weak Ones

That improv training helped me as I started to also develop as an actor who had to make strong choices, who had to read the script, and who had to break down text and come up with what I thought was the character’s angle, the character’s take and go for it. I believe in acting and that there are no bad choices. I think there are weak choices and there are unjustified choices, but if you study the text, you get the material, and you can justify the choice you make, and do it full force, it might not be the direction the director wanted to go with that, but he’ll redirect you to what it is.

In acting, there are no bad choices, only weak and unjustified ones.

It’ll show both that you have to be directed and that you know how to take initiative. As we start talking about the whole concept of epic, being epic, and going after things, the ability to take the initiative to start when everybody tells you not to start to, “It’ll never happen. You’ll never make it.” You have to find a way, and I’ll jump around a lot about different philosophies and things.

You have to find a way to let those voices that tell you can’t do something or shouldn’t do something or shouldn’t audition for the play because you’re only a freshman or you shouldn’t take that leap of faith because no one else has done it. You’ve got to silence those voices, and you’ve got to get rid of the friends and the people who are those voices. You’ve got to love them, but you got to surround yourself with the other voices, the other folks that say, “Let’s try. Let’s go after it.”

You were talking about Without a Box, which was fabulous. I auditioned for Without a Box and this is a funny story. I had all of the luck as I got up there to do improv. Who was my improv partner? It was Mel Brooks’ son Max. I got the feeling after that it was not a successful audition. Perhaps there is a comedy gene in that it is passed from generation to generation because Max was brilliant. He was so funny. He was at 78 and I was going at 33.

I think he was a freshman or something when I was a senior. I didn’t get a chance to interact with him too much but I don’t know if necessarily there’s a comedy gene. There can be the same way as I see a lot of actors who have a family lineage. I do believe, though, that if you’re from a family that you watch, again, your parents make strong choices, take criticism, and let it roll off of them. Some jokes land, some jokes don’t, but you come back in with your next one.

If you were raised that way over and over again, there’s a sense of fearlessness that whatever you do or whatever joke you put out there is, “They can’t kill me.” The joke bombed, but so what? They can’t kill me for having a bad performance, not telling a good joke, a bad set, or a bad show. No matter where that gene comes from, whether or not it’s passed down from your father, who is Mel Brooks, or from a coach who believed in you, a teacher who believed in you. Wherever that gene that you believe in yourself comes from, I believe it’s mandatory to have.

I think that if you look at throughlines of people who are successful, some people become successful at 25. Some people become successful at 70. At some point, they acquire that gene that says, “I’m going after it,” and no is not an option. Wherever you get it from, be it your parents, be it from yourself, you can be born with that confidence, you have to have it. You have to get it. Don’t beg, borrow, or steal, but become confident and believe in yourself. I don’t know how. You can go to therapy.

I say, “Here I am, launching a speaking career during a pandemic.”

You have no right to do that. Why didn’t you call me?

The thing I want to do is fill a room with people and I can’t do it because we’re not allowed to do it, but again, it is not stopping me. I do think there’s a lot of truth in what you’re saying. Some of that is being comfortable in front of a crowd. I love nothing more than getting up in front of people and doing a speech or a performance. I love the attention, like you. I crave the attention. I’ve often said that my biggest high is when I get to speak in front of people.

That audience interaction. I’ve done podcasts and stuff. When I’m speaking into a mic, it is so much harder, even though I can speak well because I don’t have the audience to play off of. I know that Kelly, you’ve been a very successful actor in movies and on TV. Here’s a question for you. When you’re in a production, TV or movie, are you playing off of the crew because they obviously have to be quiet?

A lot of my career has been doing sitcoms. I can talk about some dramatic stuff, but I’ll focus on some of the sitcom stuff. A lot of people, if they’re looking at me, are like, “How do I know him?” I’ll work up to your answer by telling you a bit. I went to the University of California Irvine and I got a Master’s in Drama. I went and I studied my craft. I think that part of people’s success and epic journey is that you become a craftsman at your trade.

Improv Vs Stand-Up

I don’t look at my career or my trade as a hobby that I’m lucked into. I look at it as my vocation. I could have been a doctor if I wanted to. I didn’t want to. I wanted to do this, so I got myself as good as I could be at that. We’ll talk about comedy, but I also did improv. When I got out of college, I tried standup. You talk about talking on the mic and being around you talk, but standup, you’re dealing with the crowd, but it’s you.

There’s no doubt. I’ve done standup, too, and it is crickets. Let me tell you.

Even in improv, you’re like, “Give me a location. Give me a relationship.” In standup, you’re like, “Who’s not been on a plane before?” You’re up there by yourself and sure, you feed off of the energy of the crowd, but you better have your material. You better have your chops. Standup comedy is a vocation. I was great at improv. I did standup, not because I wanted to be a standup comedian, but because I thought that’s how they were handing comedians their shows.

To some degree, they still see comedians as fast-track to a television sitcom deal because what a comedian has to do is he has to let you know very quickly what their perspective is. “I’m a short Jewish woman who grew up in New York.” That lets you know what you’re allowed to laugh at. “I’m this short Black kid from Central Pennsylvania who was picked,” or whatever. They can now laugh at whatever stories you tell, but again, that’s about perspective.

When we talk about playing off the crowd, standup wasn’t necessarily my thing. I didn’t want to spend every night at comedy clubs for five hours a night, which I believe you would have to do if that’s your vocation and that’s how you wanted to succeed at it. I did not want to be a standup. I wanted to be an actor. I focused my attention on getting more acting gigs, doing plays, doing showcases, and that type of thing. I got my first big break of two lines on The Drew Carey Show. I came in to play a process server who was serving Drew a subpoena because he’s in a sexual assault claim.

In the episode, he put up a cartoon of a caterpillar making love to a crinkly-cut French fry. Some of the women thought that it was in the office, so they sued Drew and I was a process server. I came in. I did two lines. That was my job. My job was to hit my mark. My job was to lay down the bunt. My job was to move the runners and then go back into the dugout. That was my job, but I was on time. I knew my lines. I was friendly and you didn’t have to bang on the trailer door to get me out. It was fantastic.

You talk about sitcoms live studio audiences, that’s the opportunity where you do have a chance to play off of. The producers are laughing and the crew can laugh. People can laugh. If it’s live, the audience laughs. You feed off of that energy. A lot of things have been moving away from live studio audiences. Now, with COVID, you can’t have the studios, but back in the day, I did a number of shows that were shot in front of a live studio audience.

You definitely do feed off the crowd, the gaffers, the production team, the producers, and the writers. They’re all allowed to laugh. A lot of times, if they’re not laughing, there’s something wrong. If they’re not laughing and you see them huddled in the side, they look at you, and they go back. You’re like, “What did I do?” In terms of a part of an epic story, those 2 lines became 4 lines. They brought me back as, “Let’s bring him back as Chuck, the security guard.” I was Chuck, the security guard, and 2 episodes became 4 episodes, and 4 lines became 8.

I’m now in 14 or 15 shows per season. I get to know the cast. I get to go with Drew and the crew when they go to Vegas. That’s a small epic, little stair steps story, to answer your question about whether or not you can feed off of the energy. It’s because even if it’s a comedy or it’s a single camera and they can’t laugh, you can tell if the energy is excited and they want to laugh. A lot of times, after they say cut, they start cracking up because they can’t laugh for audio reasons because there’s other stuff they have to do.

It’s not like a studio audience where they’re going to dub in and even sweeten the laughs. They have to be quiet so that the sound mixer can do its thing later. You can feed off of the energy. In every performance space, and I’m sure you can speak to it too, in every performance platform, there’s a collective energy of the actors you’re working with, the crew, the directors, and everybody. I’ve been lucky enough to have most of the experiences that I’ve been part of. The energy is nothing but positive and supportive.

On every performance platform, there’s a collective energy of the people you’re working with.

I want to let people know that through the years, I’ll be watching TV, and all of a sudden, there’s Kelly. I told Kelly this story, which was I’ve been rewatching ER and all of a sudden, there’s Kelly as a med student. I was like, “There’s Kelly.” I have to say, for me, it’s super cool to say there’s someone I know and not just, “Kelly went to Pomona and I knew who he was.” Kelly knows who I am. If I ran into Kelly on the street, he wouldn’t be like, “You went to Pitzer? Okay. Yeah.”

We partied together once or twice, Z. We were in some of the same parties. We knew each other.

We did. It is cool to see people that you know and see the success that they’re having. Kelly, as you said, 2 lines became 12 episodes and 14 episodes. From there, that is the way, from my understanding, your acting career began. I love M*A*S*H. I am rewatching M*A*S*H and the number of people that were on there that we look at now and go, “There’s Ron Howard.” Also, how people like you played one part and then they brought them back. For example, Harry Morgan, who played Sherman Potter, was in season one and played this crazy general who was old and losing his mind. They then bring him back a couple of seasons later to be one of the main cast members.

That Guy

There are a couple of things that you touched on there that I’ll try to weave in. I’ve been in this career for many years now. I started with The Drew Carey show. I then did a show for a good long time called One On One, where I played Duane Odell Knox. I did that for about four years. Before that, I did a show called Between Brothers with me, Tommy Davidson, and Kadeem Hardison. That only lasted a season. I did that. There’s The Parent ‘Hood.

I then did everything from ER, Mad About You, Seinfeld, Living Single, and Providence. I got off a show on Nickelodeon called Knight Squad. Depending on what color you are and what age you are, Black people know me from One On One and Between Brothers. Some White folks know me from The Drew Carey Show and Seinfeld. A lot of parents know me from Knight Squad and a lot of the stuff I did on Disney.

Also, Santa Hunters.

After all that time, after many years, I’m still what I call a, “That guy.” It’s because if you look at me, you’re like, “How do I know that guy, but I don’t know exactly what I know him from?” I’ll be walking past people and I can see them look. I can see them do a double take and go, “Was that,” because I can’t quite put it together where they know me from. If they do stop me, they’re like, “Do you go to my church? Do you owe me $7? How do I know you?”

I’ll go, “The Drew Carey Show and One On One.” “No.” “Between Brothers.” “No.” “That one Seinfeld episode.” “Yes.” You talk about me. I am blessed. I’ve had many years of career in Hollywood, but most of the people that you are talking to or seeing this probably don’t know my name and that’s fantastic. That’s okay because I’ve lived fantastic. I’m not planning on dying.

I think I’m only halfway through what a fabulous career is. I didn’t set out for it to be epic per se, but I did set out for it to be continual and continuous. I set out for it to be my vocation. When I say I’ve worked nonstop for years or this is how I’ve been making my career, I believe that’s by design and not by accident. The crazy thing about my industry is it’s a confluence of two things. It’s one of the most glamorous industries in the world. The Oscars, the Emmys, and the Tonys. These people are getting paid. Also, Us magazine. It’s very glamorous and you don’t need any credentials whatsoever to call yourself a professional.

When you become someone who’s jumped into the big pond, you have to find out what makes you unique.

If you have those two things, it’s amazing. You know what you got to do. You call yourself a professional. Sign me up. Every month there’s another 1,000 or 2,000 people coming into Hollywood. There are 30,000 people right now with the Screen Actors Guild cards. I’ll tell you a story. Out of school, I went on an audition. In school, I went to a couple of situations where I was one of the few Black kids there. Hopefully, I was standing out in Without a Box and everything.

I then went to grad school and in grad school, you get parts. You get stuff. You’re used to getting jobs and getting work. I went to an audition 2 or 3 weeks after I got out of college. I got an agent. I walked into a room and there were 45 to 60 5’6″ chubby Black kids. I looked around and I went, “What the heck?” That was just for the morning session. In the afternoon, there’s going to be another 60 short, chubby Black comedians. You look around, “I saw him on The Fresh Prince.” When you become someone who’s jumped into the big pond, you have to decide, or I decided very quickly that, “I’m going to have to find out what makes me unique.”

 

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