Mandy Patinkin Talks Wish I Was Here and the Meaning of Life

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They just don’t come much better than Mandy Patinkin. He’s possibly the most gifted musical theater actor of his generation (he’d certainly get Stephen Sondheim’s vote), and he’s been the rock of three different critically acclaimed television shows (Chicago Hope, Dead Like Me, and Homeland). And perhaps most importantly, HE WAS INIGO FREAKING MONTOYA. He’s also a man who’s made his share of mistakes, and learned from them. Despite a reputation in the past for being at times somewhat prickly (a reputation he’ll admit he well earned), he’s now one of those guys that you can’t get anyone to say a bad thing about. He’s dearly beloved by his costars on Homeland, as evidenced by Claire Danes’ Emmy acceptance speech and subsequent raving. He’s become the wise old uncle everyone wish they had grown up with. We spoke with Patinkin recently about his role in Zach Braff’s new film, Wish I Was Here, and it turned, delightfully, into a conversation on the meaning of life.

Paste Magazine: It is such a thrill to talk to you.
Mandy Patinkin: You’re very kind, thank you.

Paste: I’m a musical theatre actor from way back and learned every word to Evita and Sunday in the Park with George in my teens. You and Robert Duvall are literally my favorite actors of all time.
Patinkin: Oh my God, I love being in that company. You’ve now earned my first-born. (Laughs)

Paste: I told myself I wanted to tell you this if I ever met you. Your performances, and more than that your soul, and the parts of your soul that you poured into those characters, have shaped not only the art that I want to create but also the life that I want to create. I could never thank you enough for that.
Patinkin: Thank you so much Michael. That’s so kind.

Paste: So, let’s talk about Wish I Was Here. By my count, in the last decade or so, this is only your second big movie part. I assume that’s because you’ve been doing so much episodic television and that schedule is pretty demanding. Tell me about what it was about working with Zach [Braff] that sort of pulled you in.
Patinkin: It’s not very complicated. I had just been doing other things for all those years, and I was literally walking down the street in the Village and my son said, “I think that guy is trying to get your attention.” He came back with his girlfriend, tapped me on the shoulder and introduced himself. I knew who he was! We exchanged words, and the next thing I know a few months later he sent me a script for Wish I Was Here. I read it. I loved it. We had breakfast at Fairway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. He took a selfie, and it was a done deal. That was it in a nutshell. I loved what he wrote. It’s the story of a father and his two sons. That’s exactly what I am. I’m a father with two sons.

Paste: So the takeaway is if you want Mandy Patinkin in your movie, write a brilliant script and walk around the Village. (Laughs)
Patinkin: Yeah, walk around the Village and wait for my son to say, “That guy is trying to get your attention. I think it’s Zach Braff.” And honestly that’s how life works. I think had we not passed each other on the street and my son hadn’t said, “That guy’s trying to get your attention,” and his girlfriend didn’t say that she wanted to say “Hi,”’ then maybe it never would have happened. I don’t think life’s more complicated than that. I think it’s who you bump into, when and where. The basic lesson is, get out of the house and take a walk. (Laughs)

Paste: This movie is more specifically dealing with Judaism than other parts that either you or Zach have played in the past. And I know that you identify with other religious traditions in addition to Judaism. But tell me about what that meant to you to sort of think down deep into a character who so tied up in his identity as a Jew.
Patinkin: Well actually the Jewish aspect had very little effect on me. To me, it was about a father and two sons. I happen to be Jewish and he wrote it in a Jewish spirit, but I really think it’s universal. He and I both are, so he made it about a Jewish kid, but I really don’t think it’s a Jewish movie. I think it’s a father-son movie. I think it’s a family movie. I think it’s a movie about if you love someone, tell them. I think it’s a movie about don’t waste a minute, and I think it’s a movie about “Wake up,” because you only get a finite amount of sunrises and sunsets. If you miss one, there’s no exchange place to get it or collect the ones you missed. You either get it or you don’t. And I think it’s a movie about connecting. And those are the universal themes of my life. It’s that single word, “connect.” It’s my favorite word; it’s what I live for, and that is everything this movie is about, on every level.

It’s like when I made my Yiddish album. They took a black-and-white photo of me, but we put it in front of an American flag in color because it wasn’t about a Jew. It was the story of an immigrant, all immigrants. And when I made that album, it was actually the Asian musicians and African-American musicians who came up after to me and said, “We’ve played on all your records, this is the one that hit us the hardest in the gut, and we couldn’t understand a word of it.” And over time as I performed it, I realized it was about whatever culture you’re from. Wherever you’re from, take a walk, take a bath. Let the waters of that culture, the sounds, the music, the sights wash over you. You don’t know how it will affect you, but it will affect you. And I think it’s no different for this movie. This is a movie about a family, and it’s a movie about a father and his relationships with his sons and time. And the lesson is, wherever you’re from, don’t waste it.

Paste: I think that the character, dealing with his own impending death, certainly raises the stakes of all of that. Was that a difficult space for you to get into?
Patinkin: No it wasn’t. I think the cliché is true, everyone deals with that the minute they’re born. Clearly, as you get older when you’re 40, 50, or 60 you start to lose friends, loved ones around you and then you get to the front of the line. The irony about living is when you’re little you want to cut to get to the front of the line, and then when you’re older you want to cut to get to the back of the line. Because once your parents are gone that puts you in the front of the line, and that’s the last place you want to be as life goes on. But no one gets out of this world without dying. You hope that it happens later than sooner. I think many people who have cancer and they survive have often said, “It was the greatest gift I was ever given because it made me appreciate life.” It’s like the old joke I say, “If you wake up and you’re over 50 and nothing hurts, you’re dead.” So I encourage myself and everyone to look at every ache and pain as you get over 40 as a gift equal to a birth of a child, equal to a sunrise or sunset. A different kind of gift saying to you, “You’re alive.” This is what you get.

I remember when I was young, I was doing Evita and the weekend was coming and I had stuff to do or I was tired. It was a long run. The dance captain heard me bitching in the corner saying something like, “I wish this weekend was over.” We had like a four-show weekend or something like that, and they heard me mumble, “I wish this weekend was over.” And he grabbed me and he took to me to a corner and he said, “You just wished a weekend of your life away, don’t do that.” And I was like 26-years-old. And this guy, we hardly had a relationship, and he heard that and pushed me in a corner to wake up and to wish I was here and not somewhere else. I’ll never forget it, and I’m forever grateful to him for it.

People that smoke, they’ll say, “If I stop smoking what am I going to get, a weekend of my life?” That’s right. You might get a weekend of your life. And that might be the weekend that your kid gets married or your grandchild is born or you meet someone who changes your life just before it’s over. You know, we’re here for a blink. Nobody gets it. We’re all wasting so much time on stupid things. It’s just overwhelming and painful. When my best friend passed away, he waited for my wife and me to come to his bedside because we were away. And he looked at us and gathered all his strength and opened his eyes and through the morphine said, “Have fun.” And that was the last two words he said to us. And we try and do it every day. And it’s not easy sometimes, but I do think it’s a great goal. And I love a movie like this because that’s what it’s trying to tell people, to have fun, to be alive, to not waste a single second.

Paste: You’ve said that now having turned 60, this is the best time of your life. Do you think that learning some of these lessons more deeply is what’s making that true?
Patinkin: Yes, without a doubt. How I wish I could have known things that I know now when I was in my 20s or 30s. But it’s just not how it works. As my wife says, “You only know them now because of everything you went through.”

I remember when I was 28, I went out to Hollywood to meet with Gene Kelly, the great dancer and choreographer, and I was talking to him. And I’ll never forget he said to me, “Let me tell you something, kid. We never learned anything from our successes. Successes pat you on the back and send you on your way. But our failures we turned upside down and inside out taught us everything we know.” If you start bringing up difficult moments in my life, I won’t regret any of them because they defined this day, this moment, and this phone call. I honestly don’t know who I’d be without them.

I’ve never been happier. I’ve never been more at peace. I’ve never been hungrier for every day and it’s all because of what preceded it. It wasn’t until I was 40 or 50 something, and you started to have to stretch more, make sure you made it to the gym, watch what your eating, really tend to your body if it’s your instrument and you use it like I do. And it reminded me of The Wizard of Oz, and I realized when they wrote the part of the Tin Man, you know “Oilcan! Oilcan!” that it was an ode to everyone over 40. You need that oilcan.

Paste: One of my favorite songs of yours is your rendition of “Younger Than Springtime,” which I think is the most beautiful I’ve ever heard. And I used to, when she was a baby, sing that to my daughter because I find that sort of joy in my kids. I’m wondering how being a father has contributed to this kind of perspective that you and I are talking about.
Patinkin: Being a father has been the single greatest teacher of my life. Now that my sons are 31 and 27, they are my greatest teachers. Every day they call me, challenge me, inspire me. My wife and I talk about these things that we’re forgetting to do on a daily basis, and it’s those boys that are reminding us. They actually become the parent, and we do become the child. But we always, as all of us know, want our parent’s respect and love. No matter how old we get, we’re the kid. You want to do good, even if you make a mistake, you want to know that they still love you.

All those kinds of things that you learn, particularly when you’re a parent, about unconditional love, what you learn about making mistakes, they are the definition of my life. I don’t think everyone should be a parent. I think those who know they shouldn’t are wise. But when it’s over, if there are any pearly gates to go through, it’s not my work that I long to take with me, it’s the time I’ve had with my sons and hopefully the time I’ll have with my grandchildren and my wife and friends. That’s the time I’ll cherish in my life. I mean, I love working, I love what I get to do. I’m the luckiest guy on Earth. It’s a major part of my identity. But if you said to me, “You have to choose your family or work, your friends or your work,” I’ll choose my family and my friends.

To hear the audio of this conversation, please visit The Work podcast, presented by Paste Magazine, here.