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I Dream of Gina

Actress Gina Gershon uses drive and dreams to forge her varied and sometimes risqué career.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Gina Gershon, Sep/Oct 98

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In Gina's last year at Beverly High, her friend Tina Landau wrote a play called Faces on the Wall. Gina was one of the stars, and she caught the eye of some Los Angeles talent agents. Tina went on to Yale University and encouraged Gina to come east, which she did. She went to Emerson College in Boston for a year, to study child psychology and philosophy, but she didn't like it very much. During the summer, she went to San Francisco to take some acting classes at American Conservatory Theater, the highly respected San Francisco resident professional theater. "This was the first time I tasted a really professional learning experience," Gershon says. "It really kind of solidified my need to study and become an actress."

She transferred to New York University, where she combined studies in child psychology with an intense immersion in the craft of acting. At NYU, instead of finding one acting studio and sticking with it, Gershon tried several. She started at Circle in the Square and then worked with writer-director David Mamet. "David kept pooh-poohing The Method [form of acting] and so of course I had to go check out The Method," Gershon says. "NYU expected people to stay in one studio the whole time; I was in four or five of them. I felt I'd get what I needed from one technique and then I'd put that in the back of my head and go somewhere else."

From the earliest stages of her interest in acting, Gershon received an important gift: the unwavering support of her parents. "They instilled trust in me. Even my father was pretty amazing. I remember when I was in college and I came back home once. I had been offered one of my first movie roles, in a sort of Friday the 13th movie. I was totally excited about doing it, but it had a totally exploitive topless scene in it. I asked my dad, kind of expecting him to say, 'There's no way you are going to do this!' I needed someone to say 'No.' But he just said, 'You know what? If you're comfortable with it, I'm comfortable with it. You have to make that choice.' I was only 17 at the time. In the end, I decided not to do it, because I thought it was a stupid part."

Her parents' support had an enduring impact on Gershon. "My father wrote me a note when I went off to college--this was after I had done my first professional show--and he talked about how proud he was of me. And I look back at that and I just think, 'Oh, my God, that was the best gift he could have given me. Because I see so many people who are so talented, but their reason for trying to make it or becoming an actor is just to get that sort of approval from the parents they never got it from. And I feel I have that. I've always had that. That's out of the way. And that's a huge gift they've given me."

Through her father, Gershon also developed a love for the smell of a fine cigar. Her father and his brother, Jack, smoked cigars, and they loved Punches and Montecristo No. 2s in particular. For a time, the family had a beach house in Manhattan Beach and in the evening Gershon's father would sit on the porch with her, smoking a cigar and watching the sun set. As a result, even now a whiff of smoke from a cigar calls up warm memories from her childhood. "Walking down the street, catching a whiff, I really like that. It was a way of knowing my father was home. I would smell his cigar."

Today, Gershon from time to time will light up a fine cigar. "When I smell cigars, I'm always very happy," she says. She prefers to smoke with other people, and like her father, she likes Cohibas, Punches and Montecristo No. 2s. Walking on the beach or being outdoors at a party are some of her favorite moments to light up. One of her best memories is being in Havana a few years back on New Year's Eve. She and a group of friends smoked big Cohibas on a hotel rooftop and stayed around to watch the sunrise.

"I smoke different cigars according to my mood," she says. "I'll try small cigars or torpedos, and I like Especiales; I think they have a sexy shape." Gershon rarely buys cigars; her friends constantly give her enough to keep her well supplied. At home she keeps them stored in an improvised humidor. She often gives cigars and cigar paraphernalia as gifts and she will occasionally go to the Grand Havana Room in Los Angeles. But she prefers to smoke outdoors, during breaks from a tense movie set. She loved smoking with Arnold Schwarzenegger on the set of Red Heat and with Rade Serbedzija, her partner in an upcoming cable movie called Prague Duet.

"When I was growing up, I liked to play softball and football with the guys. It was a bonding thing," she says. "When I first started smoking cigars, not many women did. It was kind of an oddity. But it, too, was a way of communing and bonding with men, in a nonsexual way. And it's fun."

Early in her acting career, Gershon began working with some very talented drama coaches, and two have been working closely with her ever since: Harold Guskin and Sandra Seacat. When Gershon starts a new project, they will help her develop her characters, so that when she steps onto the set she is fully prepared. Guskin works more like a director, Gershon says, but Seacat focuses on ferreting out the emotional truth of a given role.

Seacat works with Gershon in much deeper ways as well. According to Gershon, they do dream work together and Seacat is helping her explore how a given character correlates with parts of her own personality and stage of development, as a woman and as an artist.


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