By TALIA JUBAS
Joshua Malina, star of acclaimed television series The West Wing and Scandal, spoke about his path to Hollywood, his Jewish faith and the various ways in which the two have intersected — not always successfully — to a crowded Statler Auditorium Tuesday.
Malina began his talk — titled “How to Make it in Hollywood and Remain a Mensch” — by noting that it is unclear both if he has made it in Hollywood and if he is a mensch, the Yiddish word for a person of integrity.
“[They are] both unproven, merely self-proclaimed — but if you grant me the points it will go more smoothly,” Malina said, prompting audience laughter.
Malina spoke about his upbringing and how he retains some of the traditions he learned at home and during his eight years in Jewish day school. He reflected on how his parents instilled in him the core tenets of Judaism by modeling behavior that reflected Jewish values, such as giving charity.
“I grew up in a household that honored the Jewish tradition and instilled me with Jewish pride, something that I’m trying to pass on to my kids,” he said.
He was able to thank his parents — both of whom went to Cornell — directly for their influence, as they were sitting in the audience. They had come up not only to “kvell” — which Malina described as “taking an inordinate amount of vicarious pleasure in the accomplishments … of your children” — for their son, according to the younger Malina, but also to visit their alma mater.
Malina’s parents met in Ithaca on a blind date during their senior year. His father, Robert Malina ’60, is a former Sun Editor-in-Chief and Managing Editor.
— Cornell Daily Sun (@cornellsun) November 19, 2013
Josh Malina urged Jewish members of the audience to explore their Judaism and to take advantage of all that Cornell has to offer by way of Jewish organizations and other conduits for exploration. He added that this “also applies to people of other faiths and other interests.”
In speaking about his path to becoming an actor, Malina called attention to life events where Judaism played a role.
In 1998, after graduating from Yale University with a degree in theater studies, Malina moved to New York City. Although he knew from a young age that he wanted to be an actor, “I didn’t have much of a game plan,” he said. At some point, his mother suggested that he call Aaron Sorkin — someone Malina knew vaguely from his adolescent years, but not particularly well.
“I remember my mother did this classic thing, ‘He’s Jewish, you’re Jewish,’” Malina said.
Malina did call Sorkin, and they became good friends. Malina told a story about how, while bowling with friends, Sorkin started choking on a hamburger. After realizing that he was in serious danger, Malina performed the Heimlich maneuver and saved Sorkin.
“In a perhaps not unrelated note, I’ve gone on to appear in almost anything he has written since then,” Malina said. “It leaves me with little by way of inspiring advice to young actors.”
“Heimlich someone who’s more talented than you are,” Malina said.
Malina also discussed the various characters he has played and shows he has appeared on. In his first television role, Malina played the Jewish character Jeremy Goodwin on Sports Night. Malina spoke of one particular episode, “April is the Cruelest Month,” in which Goodwin organizes a seder for his non-Jewish colleagues. Response he continues to receive about that episode has led Malina to believe that “there’s actually a desire for Jewish programming and it’s a shame that that desire’s not met more frequently.”
After Sports Night, he joined The West Wing, which was already a critically acclaimed hit by the time he arrived. Currently, he plays David Rosen on Scandal, who is also a Jewish character.
“Every actor needs to know what his niche is,” Malina explained. “Mine is smart Jews in suits.”
Malina also spoke about practical jokes he carried out on set and the overall experience of being an actor.
“I’m having an incredibly good time,” he said. “This is the first time I’ve been on something that has turned into a hit, and it’s kind of fun to ride that rocket.”
Malina also spoke about his efforts to serve as a Jewish mentor. He realized this role was in poor supply 12 years ago, after finding himself the only representative from the entertainment industry at a rally in support of Israel’s right to exist, according to Malina.
Following the event, Malina did an interview with The Jewish Journal, a local publication in Los Angeles, in which he said that he was “appalled that bigger stars hadn’t turned out to support Israel.”
Malina heard from large national organizations, such as Hillels across the country, as well as from Jewish websites and individuals, after making that statement. According to Malina, the response “confirm[ed his] thesis that no actual celebrity was saying anything like this.”
“It can be lonely work trying to support Israel in Hollywood,” he added.
He made sure to mention that his support of Israel is not “blind or inflexible.”
“There are aspects of Israeli society, as there are of every society, that cry out for improvement,” he said. “But I think it’s okay to be critical of Israel … without questioning her fundamental right to exist.”
To illustrate, he told a story of finding a story in The New York Times about a Palestinian teenager being attacked and beaten to death by Jewish kids in East Jerusalem. Against his initial instinct, Malina chose to read the story to his kids.
“I want them to know that we have to face that there is a lot of grey area in issues revolving around Israel,” he said.
Malina again urged audience members, who “have any inclination, [to] reach out and find a way to explore your Judaism.
“You’re young, you’re blessed to be in this incredible environment, take advantage of it,” he said.
He concluded with the phrase that is proclaimed in Jewish services after finishing a book of the Torah: “be strong, be strong and let us strengthen one another.”