How to Make the Most of Those Magical Chance Encounters – and Make An Impression On A Celebrity

 

As you may have guessed from the videos, I’m a bit of a show-off. And as one, I don’t love to share the limelight. BUT sometimes, someone comes along who’s so damn wonderful, you want EVERYONE to read what they have to say. One such person is Robert Keller – actor, comedian, storyteller, and first — and possibly last — ever guest poster here at Yes Yes Marsha Towers. Over to him:

Robert Keller SPEAKS!

Hi! I am so thrilled to be guest blogging on yesyesmarsha.com!

I gather Marsha was called away to some secret location by Austin Powers to save the world, get knighted by Queen Elizabeth II, and maybe replace Sharon Osbourne as an X Factor UK judge.

To begin, an admission: I am obsessed with celebrity.

(I think it has something to do with the fact that I am a Cancer/Leo cusp. All’s I know is, as a 15-year old, I watched a lot of Entertainment Tonight.)

As a result, whenever I run into a celebrity in real life, I get really excited. So when I see one, I naturally want to approach them. In the past, this would lead to pangs of anxiety, coupled with elaborate conversations with myself in my head.

What should I say? How? Will it annoy them? Maybe I should walk away? They probably get accosted a hundred times a day. But what if this is the only chance I get to meet them?

Or what if they hate me? Maybe it would be better just to cling to the idealized version I have of them in my mind! What if their reaction is humiliating and awkward for me?

These thoughts would often paralyze me, or worse yet, they would cause me to approach the celebrity in a confused or boorish manner and make a total fool of myself. See for reference: the time I gatecrashed the Saturday Night Live after-party, and enraged Maya Rudolph. 

A few years back, I had an experience that helped me figure out how to make the most of those chance encounters — and even make a lasting connection with someone super-famous.

Dream Class with my acting heroes

I was a quarter way through the conservatory program at the Atlantic Theater in New York City, which then had a special event every Friday called “Guest Class”. It was an optional class for me, but I never missed one, because it was so damn AWESOME!

Each week was an interview with a guest speaker — many of whom were off-the-charts, humongous, literally jaw-dropping celebrities! During my two years, I attended Guest Classes with Sam Sheppard; Elizabeth Moss; David Mamet; and Lucy Liu. You can imagine my excitement as Friday afternoon rolled around each week!

And then, there was Kristen. Kristen Johnston she currently stars on the TV Land sitcom The Exes, but you probably remember her as Sally Solomon from 90’s show, 3rd Rock from the Sun — or Sex and the City, where the chain-smoking character she played fell through the open window of Candice Bergen’s tony Manhattan apartment (to an abrupt and untimely death down below). Kristen 2

It turns out, in the early 80’s, Kristen had been a drama student at NYU, where she had studied under David Mamet (the founder of the Atlantic); and all these years later, she had been invited to come back to the school to teach a special advanced acting class, which was only available to the NYU students in the final year of their program. 

Rumour had it that, one week, Kristen had even invited her BFF Sarah Jessica Parker to teach her class. All I knew for sure is that her class was magical and revered (the NYU kids spoke of it in hushed tones) and, most importantly, it was not open to lowly first-year conservatory students like me.

So this Guest Class featuring Kristen was a golden opportunity to absorb what she had to say. I got there early and sat right up front.

She was mesmerizing. So confident. So funny. So honest. So raw. She gave us the truth. The hard truth. The un-sugar-coated truth. (She didn’t even put a little Splenda on it.) Acting is a tough business, she said, but she also said that we shouldn’t let that discourage us; in fact, we shouldn’t ever let any teacher discourage us, because no one really knows who will succeed and who won’t.

She said we should work hard, be prepared, have goals, and be realistic. She said we should treat show business like a business, because it is one, and that being a successful artist was not about being flaky, or unreliable, or unprofessional—quite the contrary 

Our personal encounter

A few days after her Guest Class, I saw Kristen in the school lobby. I was arriving and she was leaving—and I knew that if I wanted to meet her, this might be my only chance. So without really thinking it through, I just ran up to her and said, “Excuse me, Kristen?” She turned around, and I said (despite the explosive pounding of my heart beat, which I was convinced she could hear), “I’m sorry to disturb you, but… Well, you see… I attended your Guest Class last Friday, and I was just completely blown away by what you said.”

I highlighted a couple of specific things, that she had mentioned and which had made a huge impression on me: first, an anecdote about her first TV role — which deftly illustrated why it is so critical to be courteous and respectful to every single person you meet on set, no matter how low on the totem pole they are or seem to be (namely, because they may not be so low on the totem pole the next time you run into them!). And second, her advice that being flaky or unreliable was not a prerequisite for becoming a successful artist (even though it might sometimes seem that way from the tabloid stories we read).

I closed by asking whether there was any possibility that she might consider teaching her NYU 3rd year advanced acting class to the 2nd year conservatory students. Roulette wheel

She paused.

Then she looked me straight in the eyes and said,

“Absolutely not.”

Not the answer I was expecting.

“It’s not that I wouldn’t want to, it’s more that the school management just wouldn’t go for it. Trust me.” I could feel my cheeks turning red and my heart sinking. So much for taking risks.

“But,” she began – halting my internal collapse, “I have a small master class I just started teaching on the side — for professional actors. It goes for 8 weeks, and we just started last week. It’s small, about 10 actors, and there’s a waiting list. I know you’re a student, not a professional actor, but I like you. 

Then she lowered her voice. “If you promise not to tell anyone,” she whispered, with that trademark twinkle in her eye, “I’ll let you join the class next week.” And with that, she jotted down her assistant’s e-mail address on a scrap of paper and instructed me to e-mail that address right away to confirm my spot in the class.

I was floored and overjoyed. I e-mailed Kristen’s assistant, and I joined the class the following week. As a result, I got to learn from—and made a connection with—one of the most talented and compelling actors I have ever had the pleasure of watching, not to mention, one of the most brilliant, charismatic, intuitive, and courageous people I have ever had the pleasure of getting to know.

Here is the best part: at the beginning of my first class, Kristen introduced me to the other students by saying: “I want to tell you all something about Robert. He got into this class because he approached me in the hallways of the Atlantic, and the way he approached me is EXACTLY the way you should approach a famous person.”

Exactly how I got it right

So what was it about my approach that she approved of exactly? Well, if I may paraphrase, here is what she thought I had done right, in 3 easy steps:

  1. I was polite, but forthright: I walked straight up to her, addressed her by her (first) name, and asked if I could have a moment of her time.

  1. I said something specific, complimentary, and genuine: I referenced the Guest Class and two specific observations she had shared with the students that had made an impression on me. I also explained why I had personally found those observations so helpful in a simple and sincere way.

  1. I kept it short and sweet: I said my piece in 60 seconds or less (including my request that she consider teaching a conservatory class), and I didn’t try to prolong the conservation rudely or unnecessarily.

Kristen encouraged all of us to adopt the same approach whenever we happened upon someone we recognized as a leader in our field. She said we should never hesitate to approach a well-known person, provided we do it in accordance with the 3 principles mentioned above, because as she put it, everyone likes to receive a sincere compliment about their work and the impact it has had on others.

In fact, artists, in particular, love to receive this sort of feedback about their work; after all, as Kristen put it, it is often one of the main reasons we do the work that we do in the first place.

Notes to selves

So to sum up: never shy away from a chance to express a genuine sense of appreciation for a person’s work.

The key, however, is to keep it succinct and never try to aggressively or artificially insert oneself into the other person’s life/personal space. As Kristen put it, “Don’t try to sit down with them and suddenly join them for dinner, m’kay?”. Just say what you have to say, then move on with your life, expecting nothing in return.

Ironically, when you do that, you create an open space for the other person to respond and engage you in conversation; and occasionally (though you should never expect it), it can ultimately lead to a more lasting professional or personal connection (as it did in my case with Kristen).

“If you’re going to approach a celebrity,

be polite, specific and keep it short!”

– @TheRobertKeller

(Click here to tweet that!)

 The important thing is to stay attuned to the signals that the other person is giving you; if they are clearly interested in continuing the conversation, go for it! On the other hand, if they seem uncomfortable or pressed for time, just express your appreciation for their work as graciously and succinctly as possible, and move on.

That might sound obvious, but in the heat of the moment of talking to someone you really admire, this can easily go out the window. Trust me. So plan ahead. 

This strategy has served me well over the ensuing years and has allowed me to have some really interesting conversations with a number of actors whom I have had the good fortune of bumping into quite randomly (including Marisa Tomei, John Lithgow, Annie Potts, and Elijah Wood).

Now, if only I had known this stuff earlier, I might have avoided the Maya Rudolph Incident Of 2003. 

Over To You

Have you ever serendipitously bumped into someone famous or renowned in your field? Did you approach them? If so, what did you say and how did they respond? 

Go ahead—share your thoughts in the comments below.

Thanks!

Robert 

PS FROM MARSHA you can find Robert at www.roberthkeller.com and follow him on twitter here: @TheRobertKeller. And you SHOULD!

PPS if you haven’t yet read GUTS, Kristen’s heart-breaking, yet deeply inspiring memoir on her struggle with addiction, check it out here: http://www.gutsthebook.com/home.html.)  

PPPS this week, I (Marsha) wrote to the Yes Yes Marsha Mailer Family, whilst hiding from the authorities.

Want to know my best-ever client secret – and get even more advice, tips, plus stories that I won’t put on the internet? Come and join the Yes Yes Family – it’s free! Just pop your details in below:


Photo credits: SalFalko and Akeem Koss via Compfight cc

13 Comments

  • Silvia Bianco

    Reply Reply November 16, 2013

    Marsha just cracks me up every time! And Robert thanks for the tips. I can still remember when I (as a heart pounding 20 something year old) ran into Al Pacino at a very cool club in lower Manhattan and I ran up to him and made a 60 second fool of myself. I don’t think I’ve approached a celeb since then. Maybe I’ll give it another heartfelt but more subtle try!

    • Robert Keller

      Reply Reply November 17, 2013

      Silvia–I totally concur: Marsha is HILARIOUS! As far as the fear factor–I can totally relate. The trick is to figure out the difference between a gut instinct (e.g. something telling you, deep down, not to approach someone) and plain old fear (of rejection, etc.). When in doubt, I say go for it, as long as you follow the principles laid out above (be polite, sincere, and succinct). Generally speaking, most people, whether they are famous or not, will appreciate a simple, sincere compliment.

  • Stephanie

    Reply Reply November 16, 2013

    I’ve met a bunch of celebs and some of them have been really good encounters. I agree that planning ahead definitely helps. I’ve never enraged a celebrity or had a bad experience, per se, but if I didn’t have something to say, it got really awkward really quickly, and those experiences were far less rewarding. I’ve always tried to give sincere but unique compliments, as well. I love when I’ve followed them on twitter, because I can give comments on their tweets, and I’ve had that become a major conversation piece (although I never expect conversations). Oh! And whenever I’m asking for a photo, or getting a photo op at a convention, I ask for a specific style – funny, gangsta, etc. – and many have reacted very positively.

    • Robert Keller

      Reply Reply November 17, 2013

      Stephanie–I know exactly what you mean when you say that it can get awkward when you don’t have a personalized and sincere compliment. Basically my rule is: if I can’t think of a single genuine and specific compliment for the person, I simply do not approach. Period. It’s just not worth it. And regarding Twitter–I love it! (I’m borderline obsessed with Twitter at this point.) What’s so great about social media in general–and Twitter in particular–is that it allows people in the public eye to interact with their fans in a safe and controlled way, precisely because no personal contact information is ever provided (unless both parties want to exchange contact information). And over time, what starts as a simple social media interaction can occasionally evolve into a professional contact, for example, if the two people discover over time that they share mutual friends, common interests, a similar sense of humour, etc. So keep on tweeting! (Speaking of which: you should strongly consider following me on Twitter–my handle is @TheRobertKeller–and I promise to follow back!)

  • Brian Gryphon

    Reply Reply November 17, 2013

    I was directed to this post by Kristen’s twitter feed. Coincidentally I had just blogged about my own occasional interactions with people of fame. I share Robert’s mix of desire to express gratitude with the fear I’ll just annoy. Brevity is indeed the soul of wit, and so my interactions have tended to be positive; from Kirk Douglas to Paul Williams.

    • Robert Keller

      Reply Reply November 17, 2013

      You know what they say, Brian–great minds think alike! Thanks for linking to the article via your blog. (By the way, I thought you had some interesting things to say about brushes with fame in your blog post. For those who want to check it out, go to http://briangryphon.com/index.php/2013/11/16/people-in-the-biz/.) There is no question that having a positive interaction with someone you admire is a thrill; what I always try to do is make sure that it’s a pleasant experience for the person I am approaching as well. And if we all follow Kristen’s advice, chances are, it will be.

  • Desiree East

    Reply Reply November 25, 2013

    Thanks for introducing us to Robert, Marsha!! And Robert, I loved your story (and tips, too)…okay, so now I want to hear the Maya Rudolph story! LOL. I’m a huuuuuge fan of SNL, and I’ve always loved Maya’s work…that, and I’m a University of California Santa Cruz Alumni, like Maya, so I’ve always been a teenie bit biased toward her work. Heehe. Cheers! – Desiree

    • Robert Keller

      Reply Reply November 26, 2013

      Thanks for the kind words, Desiree! As for my Maya Rudolph story, let’s put it this way–I probably won’t be a Christmas guest at the Rudolph family home this year (or any year, really…) Perhaps one of these days I’ll tell the story in written form–maybe even as a repeat “Yes Yes Marsha” blog guest in the future!

  • Melissa Burkheimer

    Reply Reply November 26, 2013

    Such a cool story Robert. I’m taking this one and putting it in my pocket. Practical, to the point advice with a story that I read 3 different times to learn the tricks.

    Thank you for spilling your juicy secrets. xo

  • Sarah McKenna

    Reply Reply November 26, 2013

    Brilliant advise for approaching anyone who doesn’t know you. Thank you

  • Robert Keller

    Reply Reply November 26, 2013

    Why thank you, Melissa! I’m glad you found it helpful. And next time you have an interesting encounter with a celeb, if you find that my “tricks” (or principles) work well for you, you must promise to come back and post another comment to tell us all about it!

  • Shana LaFore

    Reply Reply November 27, 2013

    Great tips. It’s always encouraging to remember that people are just people. I haven’t had any real major celeb encounters, but when I do reach out to a person “above me on the food chain”, so to speak keeping things short, sweet, authentically flattering and to point make make a world of difference.

    • Robert Keller

      Reply Reply November 28, 2013

      That’s exactly right, Shana. No matter how high anyone gets on the food chain, they’re still human. And that’s another thing I learned from Kristen Johnston: career or financial success doesn’t necessarily mean absolute fulfillment and pure joy at all times of the day, 365 days a year. Successful people can still have their feelings hurt, become lonely, doubt their abilities, etc.–just like we all do. So I’d say paying anyone a sincere and specific compliment–including a celebrity–is almost always rewarding, for both the giver and the receiver.

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