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Interview with Impressionist Jim Meskimen

Jim Meskimen the impression guysIf you’re a fan of impressionists, you’ve probably marveled at Jim Meskimen! See him there on the right? Hey, you know that guy. He’s that impression guy!

Jim gets that a lot, and that’s why he and fellow impressionist Ross Marquand now have a series called The Impression Guys on Soul Pancake, which follows the hilarious trials and tribulations of two impressionists as they struggle to be recognized as real actors, and not just funny voices. You can now watch the full first season on YouTube.

Did you know Jim was on Who’s Line is it Anyway? and America’s Got Talent? Did you know his mom is Marion “Mrs. C” Ross from Happy Days? Did you know his favorite impression to do is Tommy Lee Jones?

But first, meet the cast of The Impression Guys and get a feel for the show in this video, which ends with a link to the whole series, so be prepared to binge watch. Go get yourself some popcorn. I’ll wait.

Interview with Impressionist Jim Meskimen

Congratulations on your new web series, The Impression Guys, on YouTube & SoulPancake. How did you hookup with Rainn Wilson and SoulPancake?

I met Ben Shelton, the writer director of The Impression Guys and also another great series on SoulPancake, The Flipside.  I was really impressed by his stuff.  He’s a fine writer and makes some really high quality films.  When he invited me to act in a Flipside episode, I got to see how easy he was to work with, and how well he ran his crew, and I was eager to do more with him.

Then when I noticed he had also worked with my friend Ross Marquand, the three of us began to hatch our plot of doing a show together.  SoulPancake liked Ben’s pitch, they trusted him, and so they greenlit the pilot.  The pilot did well, so they greenlit the series.  Very A to B.

The Impression Guys is the story of two impressionists trying to make the leap to serious acting. How autobiographical is the show?

It’s quite autobiographical, and in fact every day seems more like a page out of one of Ben Shelton’s scripts to me…

It’s a very real thing that not only Ross and I, but other impressionists such as Piotr Michael, Angela Hoover and Dana DeLorenzo have mentioned, that you get pigeonholed, which can stop casting people from considering you for roles other than sketch or impressionist ones.

Both Ross and I have TV and film careers, so we aren’t quite as ripped up about working as voice artists, (in fact, I’m very happy to do the celebrity soundalike work that I do every week) but there is that frustration that we sometimes feel that this is the only way to distinguish ourselves from the thousands of other good actors out there.

Do/did you really get paid to leave phone messages for people as different actors? 

Oh, yes.  And weddings.  Do you want one?

How did you meet Ross Marquand?

Ross has been one of those guys that fate seemed to place on my path several times just by sheer chance.  We were in several independent film projects together by coincidence.  We have a lot of friends in common.  It’s funny, since he’s about 25 years younger than me, and we don’t have many similar interests besides being actors.  But we had actually met and discussed doing some kind of collaborative project with impressions prior to my meeting Ben, whom Ross had already worked with.  I have liked and respected him, and been blown away by his impressions for some time.

I know you’ve been featured on the improv show Whose Line is it Anyway?   How much of The Impression Guys is improvised and how much is scripted?

The script is all there, but we have had so little time to rehearse and memorize it that I wind up paraphrasing and “making it my own”, which luckily Ben is perfectly fine with most of the time.

There are a lot of times when Ben defers to both Ross and I to create material that we have more familiarity with, like when I do a Woody Allen monologue or Ross has to do Christian Bale or Matthew McConaughey or something, We usually have more conversance than Ben with the specifics of a particular celeb that we have done a lot.  In the case of things like that, I will run it by Ben and he usually agrees.

Or Ben will just write, “And then Jim & Ross do a hilarious improvised bit here…” and we sort of just create it on the spot.

I’m very comfortable with improv, and it helps keep the character very natural when I can take my attention off getting the words right and just play the pure intention.  Lucky for me, Ross is a very wonderful acting partner, very in the moment, and can totally create it with me.  I’m very fortunate to be paired with him, and just about everyone in the cast works well that way.

Is this your first series?

It’s not, but it’s the best one so far.  I did a series that promoted a line of audiobooks, called “Elbows On The Table”, which I wrote and directed, which was a parody of the old Mike Wallace Interview show, for Galaxy Press.  That was a lot of fun, we made it look like an old 1957 TV broadcast.

Where do you film?

Mostly around Van Nuys, California, and down at the YouTube campus where we can use their sets and facilities.

When did you start working with impressions? 

I began really doing it for pay when I was 24 in New York City. I was getting started as an actor and some of the first gigs I had were doing celebrity voices for TV shows and advertisements.  Back then Burgess Meredith still alive, and at that time was kind of like the Morgan Freeman of today, narrated everything… so I did a lot of stuff in his voice.  And I was part of an improv troupe, Interplay, that had a weekly gig voicing political cartoons for a weekly news show, the McNeil-Lehrer News hour.  We did Reagan and Gorbachev a lot.

What are your favorite and least favorite impressions to do?

I don’t have a least favorite really… but I love to do Tommy Lee Jones.

What impression was the most difficult to nail?

I have many that I haven’t nailed, actually.

When George W. Bush was elected president, I knew that I had several advantages to doing a good impression of him; I knew Texas people (had family there) and his register was naturally similar to mine.  So I began to work on it.  There was no YouTube yet, so my ability to study it was limited.  But I had my first success on the final episode of The X Files, where they needed someone to do a convincing “W” to end the series on a high, conspiracy theory note.  I auditioned and then about a month later they called to cast me.  Unfortunately by then I had moved on to other projects and was no longer available.  But it gave me confidence that I could do it.

Then, in 2004 the Jibjab video, This Land with me doing the singing G.W. Bush, John Kerry and others went hugely viral, and I began to do the impression all over the place.

Has anyone ever complained or made it a point to compliment you for their impression?

No complaints!  Ron Howard acknowledged my impression of him in my Shakespeare in Celebrity Voices video, and Craig Ferguson, whom I also imitated in that short, also Tweeted it, so I guess he didn’t hate it.

Ross recently had Kevin Spacey alluded to his impression… which is amazing.

Does it ever become competitive between you and Ross?

Not really, because we are both mutual fans.  And neither of us is very competitive, since we aren’t trying to both conquer Vegas or something with our impressions.  If we were, I would have had him run over a long time ago.  I’m kidding.

What has been the most fun thing about filming the series? Or if you prefer, what is the “funnest” thing about making the series. I don’t know how much of a stickler you are on  grammar.

It’s very fun to work on the show and just quickly bring it all to life.  We have no budget to speak of, very little time, we are all just trying to do the best show we can with what little we have… it’s a labor of love, so it’s just really magical and pleasant right now.  God forbid we ever start making money! I’m kidding.  Again.

Are you both just being yourselves, or are you giving your characters traits you yourself might not possess in real life?

I can’t speak for Ross, but my character is much more insecure and conniving than I am, I think.  I’m also less polite with people than I try to be in real life, like when I’m dressing down Matt Jones of Breaking Bad for doing what I consider to be a rotten impression of Russell Crowe.

I’m also a lot handsomer in the show than I am in real life.

Your wife on the show is The Office’s Angela Kinsey. Any plans to have other comedians or impressionists guest star? 

I’d like to have many more impressionists and other acting friends in the show.  I got to act with my real life wife, Tamra Meskimen in several episodes; she doesn’t do impressions, but she’s a wonderful actress.  And my 23 year old daughter, Taylor also appeared in one episode.  Maybe we can get my mom in the show.  She’s actress Marion Ross of Happy Days fame.

What does your Mom think of your impressions?

I think she likes them.  She set the example for me early on with her impressions of people in our life, as well as celebs like Katherine Hepburn.  She showed me that the voice can be a kind of toy to play with.

What was it like watching your Mom grow up as one of America’s favorite Moms?  Did her acting inspire your decision to enter show businesses?

It was very educational. She has had a magnificent career that very few people have had, and is active still, at 85!  I want to be just like her when I grow up.

Her sense of ethics and professionalism are things that I’m really glad I got to see and experience first hand.  She was a marvelous mentor, in a very informal way.

I was rather conflicted about getting into acting because I didn’t understand where it fit into the world, why it was beneficial, and I was confused about it, as I think a lot of children of stars become.  I had to work out why it was important for me, what kind of contribution I could make that would allow me to capture all that attention… when I did finally do that, it was an easier road.

How jealous were others that you had access to The Fonz?

I really don’t know!

I know I myself was very jealous of Robin Williams, who got his TV start on Happy Days!  He’s about five or so years older than me, and my skill set was very similar, as I flatter myself.  (Oddly, now I do his Genie voice for Disney projects.)  To watch him enjoy a life that I felt deep down might have been mine was something I had to just kind of bite my lip and endure before I began my own professional life.

I am a big admirer of Robin’s and have met him once or twice.  I’m a lot more comfortable with his success now that I have had a career of my own.  I can differentiate between what my goals and possibilities are, and the brilliant path he has blazed.  But as a teenager, I felt like, “Damn!  He’s living MY life!”  My mom would come home on a Friday night after shooting Happy Days and say, “Robin was so brilliant tonight!  He said the cleverest things…”  It was like having an older brother who was the star quarterback.

What is it like being in a room full of impressionists?

It’s sometimes very noisy. Like an episode of an old celebrity roast!  It’s fun.

How many characters from The Office can you imitate?

Of the American show?  None.  Of the British one, Ricky Gervais and Martin Freeman.

Are you still doing your live JIMPRESSIONS show?

Yes, every first Saturday of the month at 8 p.m. at The Acting Center, Hollywood.  And I’m getting some of my new impressionist friends to guest star!

For tickets and info: www.theactingcenterla.com/events/jimpressions.

 

Amy Vansant

Amy Vansant

Author Amy Vansant enjoys long walks on the beach, anything to do with her Labradoodle Gordon and frantically getting nothing useful done.
Amy Vansant

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