It’s fun to discover new authors you heretofore knew nothing about. Evan Handler is one such author. In fact I didn’t even know he was an author. I hardly knew of him as an actor, in fact. As one who rarely gets to Manhattan, I never had the good fortune to catch him in the dozens of well-reviewed Broadway shows in which he appeared. As one who lives in the country and until recently was sorely lacking in all things cable, I hadn’t even caught him in his recurring role as love interest/husband of Charlotte on HBO’s Sex and the City (I had to rent the DVDs after the fact). But check out his website and see what this man has been up to in a career that has spanned about 30 years, interrupted midway by a diagnosis of terminal cancer (and the commensurate take-you-to-the-edge-of-death treatments), one he defied the odds to beat anyhow. And marvel at how he managed to get on with his life as if that major glitch never got in the way of things at all. All the while remaining a sometimes self-doubting, occasional life-questioning, perpetually serial-dating very funny and talented actor. After many years of trying to get it all right, Evan seems to be on the right track, happily married and the father of a 15-month old, with steady acting work and a fabulous book launching today.
We had the chance to ask Evan a bit about his life and his latest memoir, It’s Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive.Evan has also generously offered a copy of his hilarious book to be raffled to a Deb Ball reader who posts a comment today (please be sure to provide a link for contact information).
DB: Can you give a brief synopsis of the timeline of your diagnosis and how you reconciled yourself with your presumed fate, and at what point you thought, wow, I might actually beat this thing!
EH: I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 1985, when I was 24 years old. I was working as an understudy in the Neil Simon play Biloxi Blues on Broadway. I was in and out of the hospital receiving brutal treatments for the next four years. The recurrence of the illness happened two years after diagnosis, while I was starring in Neil’s play Broadway Bound. This made me wonder whether Neil Simon plays were carcinogenic. I had a bone marrow transplant in 1988. The statistics show that recurrences after that treatment tend to happen quickly, within 12 months, or not at all. So, after a year you’re considered safe. That was 20 years ago. I started feeling safe about three weeks ago.
DB: Both the acting and publishing industries are notorious for sucking one’s soul dry if you let it. How did your “death sentence” affect your approach to your careers in these professions (i.e. do you handle work with a much more relaxed approach and not sweat the big stuff)?
EH: I’m afraid I’m a sweater of stuff large and small, which the new book makes perfectly (and, hopefully, hilariously) clear. In fact, the book is pretty much about how the illness never stopped me from sweating the small stuff. I have relaxed a good deal now, but that has more to do with satisfaction in my professional accomplishments, and having met the woman who’s now my wife and feeling deeply satisfied there. Which just means I’ve got an effective and enjoyable antidote to the torment I still often feel in regard to each of my chosen professions.
DB: I always hate those hypothetical types of questions–if you had one day to live, what would you do? But having faced the potential for a finite time in which to live, did you reconcile yourself with this possible reality and try to capitalize on everything? Or did you just go on about your daily life and not try to allow yourself to become maudlin about it?
EH: I make a joke in my first book about how I’d like to live my life as if each day might be my last, but thinking each day might be my last usually makes me too sad to enjoy them. So, I’m not a big subscriber to those aphorisms. Again, it’s what I strive to address in this book: the balancing act of the insights gained from the illness; the pressure to subscribe to insights people expect me to have gained, but that I really haven’t; and the relaxation that comes from just forgetting all the insights I might have gained – because those insights are not necessarily comforting. I don’t think I lean toward the maudlin, so that’s not so much of a problem. I lean toward the caustic, and that’s stuck with me still.
DB: I know right now you are doubling up with your many professional commitments: with the Showtime show Californication, promoting your book, and probably gearing up for promotional events surrounding the upcoming Sex & the City movie. Do you take these overwhelming time demands in stride or do you find it pretty grinding?
EH: Right now, sitting in front of my computer with a cold, a bit of a fever, a work day on set all day tomorrow, a red eye flight to NY that night, press as soon as I land, and all day the next day (at least the shows that haven’t cancelled out on me at the last minute), then the first flight back the day after that to work here all night again makes me want to crawl into my baby daughter’s crib and cry. But she’s napping there, so I can’t.
DB: The other night on TV I saw one of those quintessential “former beauty queen/fading star” Hollywood types—a Carol Burnett-as-Norma-Desmond kind of gal. You know what I mean—someone trying to still pretend she’s an ingenue, and in the process has her lips fixed to the point that they freeze in a permanent “O” of surprise, her face is pulled back from repeated plastic surgery, her boobs are surgically enhanced to the point of being a parody of a pair of breasts. A fading starlet with a complete inability to grow old gracefully.
I wonder how you as an actor who faced your mortality, who dealt with all that that entailed, from the grueling physical torment to the inevitable loss of hair and such that accompanies so many cancer treatments view this shallow approach to life? Do you find it amazing that these celebrities (women in particular) seem to find their only value in their appearance, and can’t see beyond their looks to be able to reinvent themselves, just as you were able to reinvent and redefine yourself?
EH: I look just like that woman you’ve described before I get to the make up trailer every day.
No, actually, I have vanity and I’d love to be able to cultivate a slimmer, slicker image. It’s just not something I’m skilled at. I’ve had no teeth resurfaced, I don’t work out very hard, and I can’t stop myself from eating the foods I enjoy. Whether things would be different if I were more ambitious and/or disciplined in these areas I’ll never know, because I don’t think there’s much chance I’m going to change now.
DB: I find a sense of humor is probably one of the best coping tools I’ve got. How do you find solace in your humor?
EH: My humor provides me great solace so long as other people are laughing at it. When they stop laughing, the solace stops with them.
DB: You were an acclaimed Broadway actor long before Hollywood came calling. And of course there’s that “fledgling” writing career you’re nurturing, with two memoirs under your belt plus a host of freelance writing gigs for numerous national publications. Which do you prefer—the theater? Television/film work? Writing?
EH: I’m an enjoyer on a case-by-case basis, for the most part. Each script, each project, each team of collaborators has the potential to be enjoyable or torturous. When the dish blends, then ecstasy can ensue. I’m happy to say that right now, with my home life nourishing me luxuriously, and Californication about the most easy-going, enjoyable, and – in my opinion – high quality job I’ve had, things are feeling very good.
DB: Do you find similarities in the crafts of writing and acting?
EH: No, not really – except in terms of my trying to find ways to make clever and surprising choices in each. In my writing, I try to tell the untold version of a story (i.e. the guy who’s lucky just to be alive, but who still spends 20 years banging his head against the wall in search of lasting love and contentment). As an actor, I’ll try to find some behavior within a moment that’s different than what I might have seen before. But as a writer I’m a storyteller, while as an actor I’m a conduit for someone else’s story.
DB: We have plenty of writers who read our blog each day who are on the cusp of landing that first book deal, yet still getting enough rejection kicks to the groin to feel demoralized. As someone who’s had really good reason to feel demoralized, what would you say to these writers?
EH: Well, the way you’ve phrased that question, the only answer that literally fits would be, “Be glad you don’t have cancer.” But then there might be some reading who do. I think everyone finds there own way to deal with demoralization. Some do positive imagery and visualization and talk incessantly about how great everything is. Some thrive on their fury and make it work for them, so they’d be silly to try to mask it or shake it off. Some who are really lucky find enough pleasure from their own satisfaction in what they’ve created. And then they meet their editors…
DB: What’s next for you professionally?
EH: Today is day one of 12 weeks of Californication, so the near term is pretty well settled. If I’m very lucky, the book will still be living after we’re done here and I might get to bask in that, and help promote it more than I’m currently able to. After that, I think I’d like to take a vacation. But, even if we do, our fifteen month old will still wake up hungry every morning at six a.m. And for this, I am a lucky man.
Many thanks, Evan, for taking time from your insanely busy schedule to stop by, and best of luck with the show, the book and maybe finding some sleep along the way!