2012 Moth Ball Interviews: Celebrity Guests on Storytelling and Scorsese

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Since George Dawes Green started The Moth in his living room 15 years ago, the organization has had one clear mantra: great storytelling. So it’s no surprise that the honoree of their annual ball, held Tuesday night at Capitale in New York City, was one Martin Scorsese. It’s a difficult task to sum up the essence of his ever-evolving oeuvre, but perhaps award-presenter Adam Gopnik did it best when he discerned that at the heart of every Scorsese film is “an act of verbal aggression.” In a broader sense, this pronouncement encapsulated the theme of the night: a Moth story is like Scorsese — you can peel back the layers and get even more (which is why, if you’re looking for a challenge, we recommend listening to their podcast on an erratic, crowded subway train, where hitting an iPhone’s microscopic rewind button while standing is perilous).

For exclusive interviews from the evening, click through our celebrity slideshow featuring: Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, the stars of White Collar (Tiffani Thiessen-Smith, Matt Bomer, and Tim Dekay), comedian Mike Birbiglia and Jen Stein, Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi, Kyp Malone of TV On The Radio, Joan Firestone (Executive Director of The Moth), and Royal Pains stars Reshma Shetty and Paulo Costanzo.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, three-time Moth contributor

Flavorwire: What is the key to telling a really great story?

DMC: Be honest and truthful. Even if you’re making up a story — tell it honestly.

FW: Do you consider yourself a storyteller?

DMC: No, I don’t.

FW: Wait, you don’t?

DMC: Well now I do. I found out that I was adopted at age 35, and I didn’t know my whole life. And so The Moth heard about it, and at first I wasn’t even going to put that on records, and then they said, “Get up there and just tell your story.” And I was like, “There’s no script?” And I did three of them and it brought me healing — which is so crazy.

FW: Do you have a favorite Scorsese film?

DMC: Raging Bull, with Robert De Niro playing Jake LaMotta. The stuff that he did outside of the ring, was so, you know, heartbreaking, inspiring. Because most of the time you see people, celebrities — the truth is they’re just no different from anybody else. That’s what a good story will let you know.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Tiffani Thiessen-Smith, White Collar

FW: What is the key to telling a really great story?

TTS: My best friend’s a Southerner — he’s from South Carolina. And I’ve always said Southerners tell the best stories, because it’s that back porch mentality.

FW: Do you consider yourself the storyteller or the listener among your friends?

TTS: I have some pretty darn talkative friends (laughs) but I feel I kind of am too, which is probably why we all get along and we’re friends.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Matt Bomer, White Collar

FW: You were great on Glee recently — when did you start singing?

MB: I went to Carnegie Mellon, and got a major in drama, and a minor in music, so I started singing in college.

FW: And can you tell us anything about next season of White Collar?

MB: Oh yeah. We got the amazing experience of getting to start the season on a destination shoot, and now we’re back in New York. In some ways it’s business as usual, but we’re throwing a lot of fun new mythology things in there as well.

FW: And what’s is your favorite Scorsese film?

MB: Oh man, that’s like asking what my favorite Italian dish is!

FW: Which is?

MB: Penne alla vodka.

FW: That’s a good one.

MB: I love everything from Goodfellas, Mean Streets — to some of his more recent fare. I loved Aviator. Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore… Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore is a badass film! That is definitely one of my favorite Scorsese films.

FW: Did you watch the TV series?

MB: You know, I think it was a little before my time. I caught some re-runs every now and then. But the movie that spawned it — that performance and the way it was directed, was just incredible.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Tim Dekay, White Collar

FW: What is the key to telling a really great story?

TD: Having a clear beginning, middle, and end.

FW: Interesting you say that, because in television, the way a series lives is having no concrete end, or it’s done.

TD: Right. The challenge with television, is each episode should have a clear beginning, middle, and end, but the overall essence — it should have a beginning, certainly, that has to be reminded to new audience members, a good middle — and you hope that ending doesn’t come until seven or eight seasons.

FW: And that’s why White Collar gets a lot of praise, it has the procedural elements, and the ongoing conflicts — the good vs. evil in Neal, will he betray you or not…

TD: That’s right. We call that the “anthology part of it.” We hope anybody can join in and get a great caper, but then also realize something else is going on — let me tune in next week…

FW: And favorite Scorsese film?

TD: Goodfellas. It’s great. It doesn’t romanticize the mob. It’s ugly.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Mike Birbiglia and muse Jen Stein

FW: How important is storytelling in your household?

Jen Stein: Mike’s very verbal. [laughs] As far as processing things, it’s verbal processing.

Mike Birbiglia: We were listening, on a car trip, to a lot of Howard Stern recently, and we were listening to this interview with Chris Martin from Coldplay and he — like a lot of musicians — has this thing where he constantly hears music in his head, and then it’s his job to pick stuff out and go, “That’s one I want to keep and record.” I feel like that’s a little bit of a my process — I won’t shut up and at a certain point I say something that we both go, “Well, that seems kind of interesting.”

JS: Yeah, it’s true.

FW: Do you try out material on her?

MB: Yeah, well we —

JS: We’re in dialogue

MB: We’re in dialogue about everything all the time.

JS: Even right now we are.

MB: Yeah, we are.

FW: Is it true you sleep in a sleeping bag?

JS: Yes.

MB: I do, yeah.

FW: And mittens?

MB: I don’t do the mittens anymore. I’ve graduated from mittens.

FW: Favorite Scorsese film?

MB: Goodfellas, although it’s such a close call. I love so many of them.

JS: I’m obsessed with the Bob Dylan film No Direction Home. I watch it once a month. That movie is like a feast, it’s amazing.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Padma Lakshmi, host of Top Chef

FW: How would you say the art of storytelling applies to Top Chef?

PL: Well, I think what we judges have to do, is tell you a story that you believe, about how this food tastes. We have to be descriptive and that’s what food writers do — we’re your palates. And I think a chef can tell a beautiful story from a plate of food. If you watched the last season of Top Chef, we did an episode with Charlize Theron — go watch that episode — every plate tells a story.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Kyp Malone, TV On The Radio

FW: What is the key to telling a really great story?

KM: Hmm. Rhythm, probably has a lot to do with it, a story being good, because the teller is either paying attention to, or innately has a good rhythm.

FW: And what is your favorite Scorsese film?

KM: Color of Money. [laughs] I don’t have favorites of anything, but I was really excited and proud — it’s weird to be proud of someone you don’t know — but of Hugo. I was really, really — I felt super happy for him. Because it was a different scale and a different world than what I’ve seen him do before. I thought it was fantastic.

FW: It really was, magic.

KM: I saw it with my daughter in Chicago and we kept stopping and looking at each other and were like, “This is really good.” And she’s 11. She’s not the easiest to please, very discerning.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Joan Firestone, Executive Director of The Moth, and husband Dick Firestone

FW: How does someone get picked to be on The Moth?

JF: We have Pitch Line. You can go on the web and tell a one-minute story, and every one of those stories is listened to. That’s the best way to do it.

FW: What makes a story stand out?

JF: Something that is provocative, that leads me to want to hear more, that engages me in a very special way.

FW: You know someone’s “cool” if they listen to The Moth. How have you maintained your hipness over the years?

JF: What it really is, is a very strong community. The stories are what bring us together. What’s hip about it, is that it attracts a lot of very young people. It engages them in a very special way. Tonight if you look around you, we have 40 volunteers, each one of them hipper than the next. They’re very chic. And they’re very terrific.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Reshma Shetty, Royal Pains

FW: What is the key to a really great story?

RS: A start, a middle, and a finish.

FW: That’s the second time I’ve gotten that answer.

RS: You hear that in acting school all the time.

FW: And what is your favorite Scorsese film?

RS: I just saw Hugo — I loved it! It was stunning. Beautiful.

Photo credit: Robin Damore

Paulo Costanzo, Royal Pains

FW: What’ the key to telling a really great story?

PC: Oh Jesus. That’s my answer. [laughs] No, the key? There’s no one key. I think it definitely takes a lot of practice and talent, but the most important thing is to have your audience in the palm of your hand, that much I know.

FW: And favorite Scorsese film?

PC: I was so unprepared to think tonight… Probably Goodfellas.