Tisch Alum Jason Lew Shares His Journey


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Jason Lew sat down with WSN to discuss studying at Tisch, transitioning to the role of director, and what it’s like to work with other actors.

Tony Schwab, Staff Writer

Jason Lew took the long road to directing. After studying acting at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Lew landed roles in several movies, including “All Gods Children Can Dance” (2008) and “Allegiance” (2012). However, as his career progressed, Lew felt himself more and more drawn to writing. Success in that path came very quickly; his first script “Restless” was picked up by Gus Van Sant. With recent release “The Free World,” Lew worked for the first time as a writer-director, telling the story of a man readjusting to society after serving a long prison sentence for a crime he did not commit. WSN spoke with Lew about Tisch, transitioning to directing and what it’s like to work with actors.

WSN: What studio were you a part of at Tisch?

Jason Lew: I was in the Playwrights Horizons studio for a few years, and after that I transferred to ETW [Experimental Theater Workshop].

WSN: What did you get out of your time at Playwrights?

Lew: Playwrights was great for me because it takes a very holistic approach. That helped a lot because I came from a school that had very little in the way of a theater program so it was all kind of new to me.

WSN: What drew you to ETW?

Lew: Its not quite as esoteric as it sounds. Basically its a more physical approach to acting, with lots of outside inand character work rooted in [Jerzey] Grotowski. Also, there is a lot of focus on generating your own work. I did the Amsterdam program through ETW and ended up taking a class in self-scripting with a teacher, Paul Binnerts, who really changed my life. I made my first self-scripted piece there and I realized Oh, I think I can actually write a bit.

WSN: Your first script was directed by Gus Van Sant. What did you learn from working with a director [who was] that experienced which you could bring to “The Free World?”

Lew: His ease on set. I was basically a mess on set [of TFW], but from Gus I learned to try to project a sense of safety where actors and everyone else feel that they can relax and do their best work. Our sets were very different in terms of the resources we had, but I definitely took from him a sense of how to be a strong leader without having to assert your ego.

WSN: The stars of “The Free World” (Boyd Hollybrook, Elizabeth Moss and Octavia Spencer) are all very experienced actors. How did you pitch yourself to them?

Lew: I said to them that what I knew was acting. I know acting as a craft very well. I have a deep, deep reverence and respect for it and I know what needs to go into one of these performances. I know what good acting looks like, and I know, more importantly, how it feels. I talked to them later and I think that put them at ease. You can never know what you’re going to get as a first-time director, and I didnt want to pretend to know things that I didnt. I also assured them that I would hire people who knew about all of the technical aspects that I might be a little greener in.

WSN: Do you have a sense of what you are going to do next?

Lew: Im taking my time on a follow-up, but currently I am writing a show and a movie with Justin Lynn, which is awesome. Hes a gracious and brilliant dude, and also an Asian [like Lew], so its really a dream.

Email Tony Schwab at [email protected]