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How Emmy Rivals James Lipton and Neil deGrasse Tyson Chase — and Edit — Celebrities

While one interviewer probes the art of acting, and the other sells the truth of science, both rely on talkative celebrities.

Neil deGrasse TysonThe New York Times presents TimesTalks with Neil deGrasse Tyson, TheTimesCenter, New York, USA - 05 May 2017

Neil deGrasse Tyson


You wouldn’t think that National Geographic talk show “StarTalk,” hosted by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, would have anything in common with its Emmy rival for Outstanding Informational Series or Special, 90-year-old James Lipton’s “Inside the Actor’s Studio,” which Bravo airs to a global audience of 94 million in 125 countries. “StarTalk” started as a Syrius podcast — NatGeo cherrypicks 20 episodes for the TV show — and is up for its third Emmy, while “Studio,” with 20 nominations and one win in 2013, is the sixth most-nominated show ever.

Both men wrangle celebrities, who submit to being interviewed on camera at length, and then edit the hell out of what they get. Lipton and Tyson use this celebrity wattage to lure viewers into watching subjects near to their hearts: the art of acting and the power of science, respectively.

Over 23 years hosting “Inside The Actor’s Studio,” Lipton has interviewed many of this year’s Emmy nominees, from Susan Sarandon, Jessica Lange, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Anthony Hopkins, Kevin Spacey, and Robert De Niro. He records each interview in front of a live Actor’s Studio Master Class audience — both Sean Penn and De Niro’s featured questions from student Bradley Cooper, who years later played the son to his idol De Niro’s father in “Silver Linings Playbook” — for four to five hours, and then edits them down to a one-hour show.

Viola Davis and James Lipton'Fences' film screening, After Party, New York, USA - 19 Dec 2016

Viola Davis and James Lipton


Indeed, both men are pedagogues on a mission, as Lipton seeks to impart to his students “what they need to know to embark on their careers,” and Tyson is hellbent to share the virtues of science to people all over the world.

For example, as Tyson told me ahead of an FYC event on the Fox lot, he handles science deniers by ignoring them and focusing on trying to train the next generation to know what science is inoculate them against deniers. He can’t wait for the next generation to take over and fix everything that we’ve broken.

At the FYC Q&A, he said he was moved by his interview with autodidact Katy Perry, who dropped out of high school at age 15. At age 32, “there’s no walls of books or tutors following her,” he said. “She’s trying to make sense of the world and piece it together. She doesn’t have organized knowledge, but she has retained a purity of childhood curiosity about the world the rest of us get beaten out of us by the end of middle school. I felt like I should move in and just be the tutor.”

Of course, Lipton preps for weeks, reviewing all the movies and TV shows for guests such as this year’s Cuba Gooding Jr., followed by all women: Viola Davis, Jessica Chastain, and Lena Dunham and the female cast of “Girls.” Then he relies on his copious notes. But he swears that, with no pre-interviews, it’s like a live “high-wire act without a net.”

Interviewing “Fences” and “How to Get Away with Murder” star Davis was a high point for Lipton. “The story of her life is very difficult,” he said. “The background of where she came from and how she arose from it. It was one of the longest and most impressive journeys, and she wound up winning the Academy Award.”

Wrangling the talent for such a long interview at the Actor’s Studio Theatre in New York is the biggest challenge for Lipton. He fractured his right elbow and dislocated his arm slipping by the pool after his daily swim on the Tuesday before he was supposed to interview Scarlett Johansson the following Saturday. Discharged from the hospital on Thursday, he insisted on eschewing painkillers before doing the four-hour interview with his arm in a sling.

NEW YORK, N.Y. - Neil deGrasse Tyson on set of the filming of StarTalk on June 24, 2015.

(photo credit: National Geographic Channels/Scott Gries)

Neil deGrasse Tyson

By contrast, Tyson choses his wide range of guests, from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Bill Maher, based on one thing: a significant following. His goal is to reach followers of a celebrity and teach them science.

Tyson, who won a Critics Choice award as Best Reality Host for channeling Carl Sagan on his wife Ann Druyan’s reboot of “Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey,” also takes longer interviews of an hour or so and edits them down to just a few choice minutes inside each one-hour episode of “StarTalk,” as he also talks to other experts on the show to add scientific expertise and commentary around the celebrity conversation with such celebrity guests as Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, Jay Leno, Terry Crew, Ben Stiller and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

Many of his entertainment world guests can talk about advances in science and technology that help “create this art that is television and movies,” said Tyson. “So actors might have played a role with some interesting CGI.”

Neither man is what you’d call a tough interviewer. They’re invested in making their guests feel comfortable. “I encourage them to teach these students,” said Lipton. “They are there to learn. I love that audience. It’s unlike any other show. I let the guests lead me. I hand them the brush and palette and and hold up the canvas and get out of the way.”

James Lipton and Bradley CooperThe Actors Studio presents a private screening of 'A Letter to Elia', New York, America - 01 Nov 2010The Actors Studio presents a screening of 'A Letter to Elia'. The documentary directed by Martin Scorsese is about the life of Elia Kazan who was co-founder of The Actors Studio. Today's co-presidents of the Actors Studio are Harvey Keitel, Ellen Burstyn and Al Pacino.

James Lipton and Bradley Cooper


Editing is key for Lipton. As soon as he finishes taping, the audio is stripped and sent to a transcriber, who returns a time-coded transcription with every “um” and stutter intact. Lipton edits that to about 70 minutes, moving things around to get the most out of what happened on the stage that day. The producer then times the edit; in the real editing room, they cut it down to the most essential moments. “Most audiences and see what’s on air as exactly what happens on stage,” said Lipton. “Nobody can tell any of the seams.”

He researched all four women on the “Girls” segment and worked to give each their due in the editing room. “I whittled each one down until each was the star of the show,” he said. “All four women were very intelligent, had wonderful, visible talent and were well-trained with great technique. It could have been any of them. They were irreverent and funny, like the characters on the show.”

For Tyson, levity is the soul of a witty late night talk show. He dials up and back the comedy valve during each episode.  “I don’t want to totally blow up your head,” he said.

Next up, Tyson has a bestseller on the charts, “Astrophysics for People in a Hurry,” and just interviewed Stephen Colbert for Season 4. A new “StarTalk” coffee table book with quick takes on the science you learn in the show is hitting stores.

Lipton’s next guest, this October, is Kristen Wiig (“Downsizing”). And the nonagenarian former dancer, who has arthritic knees, has invented a special pillow, which can be ordered at kneesease.com. 


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