Alumnus Q&A: Screenwriter and actor Eyal Podell ’97
Eyal Podell ’97 graduated from Dartmouth with a major in theater. After graduation, he moved directly to Los Angeles, where he acted in many television shows including “The Young and the Restless” (1973) and “Defying Gravity” (2009) before going into screenwriting. Podell partnered with fellow Dartmouth alum Jonathon “Stew” Stewart ’96. In 2006, the two worked together on “USONIA,” which tells the story of Podell’s grandparents and grand uncle who founded a utopian cooperative community. They later wrote a biopic about Theodor Geisel titled “Seuss” which later landed on the Black List, a list of the best unproduced screenplays in Hollywood.
What inspired you to start acting in the first place?
EP: I think one of the things that inspired me to be an actor or a storyteller, if you want to go more macro on it, was just growing up and living internationally. I was born in Israel, and I lived in Hong Kong as a kid. And then I moved to New York and got exposed to Broadway theater on a regular basis by my parents. And just kind of seeing stories of people all around the world and then getting to see the arts at their finest in American format in Broadway kind of galvanized my interest in it, and I just started doing plays and musicals in high school. And then when I came to Dartmouth I tried out for the play freshman year and then decided I was going to take a semester off of theater to see if there were things in other fields that interested me and there weren’t. And my grades kind of plummeted and I got kind of really disenchanted and lost some passion and so the next term I got back on to this sort of a theater bandwagon and I sort of realized, “Alright, this is what I am called to do.”
I’ve also noticed that some of your work deals with Israeli and Jewish identities, as well as conflicts in the region. Would you say this is the focus of your work and if so, what drives you to focus on these areas?
EP: I think as an artist, you’re usually drawn to things that are close to you, and you’re usually kind of pulling back layers of a mask on yourself and exposing that to the world, however it may be, and so, spending summers in Israel as a kid, I definitely became very familiar and passionate with the notion of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the peace process. And that definitely is a world of interest for me still and unresolved politically still. So anything you can do in the arts to shed light on that and tell the story from a human perspective as opposed to from a geopolitical, strategic perspective or a news anchor’s “if it bleeds, it leads” perspective, I think you can kind of offer new and fresh insight, so one of the stories I wanted to tell about that was a camp called Seeds of Peace that puts Israel and Palestinian kids together on neutral turf. I think it was a camp in Maine, and I was just so intrigued by that idea, that these kids would get together in the summer together and workshop their issues and then be kids. That was one of the things that got me interested in that first screenplay that I wrote, called “Homeland.” And I mean as a writer, a lot of those in the writing profession will tell you in the beginning, write what you know. Write what you’re passionate about, because it’s easier to get through a story.
Now that you have more experience in screenwriting, are you focused in a different area? And if so what is that focus?
EP: What’s interesting to me and my writing partner, as far as screenwriting goes, is sort of that there are these two buckets that we really love. As we grew up, what made us fall in love with movies are these sort of like Amblin Entertainment big family adventures like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” or “E.T.,” so those kind of movies we’re still excited about making. Ironically, they make them more now in the animation space than they do in live action, so we chase those kind of movies, on the one hand. And on the other hand, there’s a part of us that is very excited by adult-themed movies that we started being moved by as we became adults, like whether it’s the “Good Will Hunting”’s or the “Dead Poet Society”’s of the world or “Finding Neverland” or you know, movies about famous people or just about sort of growing up, sort of rites of passage movies, adult-themed stuff that we also are very excited about. We have the Dr. Seuss biography, we’re working on a Marlon Brando biography, we did the Frank Lloyd Wright story, but those seem to be kind of like the other stakes that excite us.
How have your experiences an actor shaped your work in the screenwriting world?
EP: I think as an actor for the first 10 years of my career, primarily, I just read so many scripts, and I would devour them, whether they were TV pilots or films or whatever, and the more you read, the more you begin to understand. In television, the writer is king, so whatever’s written in TV, you kind of have to do whatever’s written. You get really good at dissecting clues on the page, and that then informs how you write. You know, what do you think the actors or the audience needs to know as you’re writing to convey the story you’re trying to tell? I remember starting writing when I first came out here, and Matt Damon and Ben Affleck just wrote “Good Will Hunting,” and I was like “Oh, I can write a screenplay. Those guys can.” And I started writing like a big, chill college reunion story where everyone goes back for the five-year, and it was awful. I couldn’t get past the first 30 pages, I had no idea where the thing was going, and I took some screenwriting courses, you know a great course from Robert McKee, who teaches this story seminar which is phenomenal. I read as many books as I could, and slowly started teaching myself and paying more attention to the scripts that I was reading and how they are and what makes them work. So it’s just a lot of hard work, time and effort.