Faith Salie was born in Boston, but grew up mainly in Atlanta, Georgia, the youngest of three children. At an early age, she found a love for theater. She attended Northwestern University for a year before transferring to Harvard, where she won the Jonathan Levy Award for most promising actor at the university. She had a brief stint on “Sex in the City” involving a gold lamé outfit and portrayed a genetically enhanced mutant on a couple of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” episodes. She has also done years of stand-up comedy and improv, including two seasons in the BRAVO sitcom, “Significant Others.” You can now find her hosting a public radio satirical news and entertainment show called “Fair Game” from Public Radio International.
Let’s start with your childhood. At what age did you move from Boston to Georgia and why?
I was six and my father was finishing up a Ph.D. at Emory University and my mother’s three brothers and their families lived in Atlanta. They felt it was time to move, if only to neutralize my Boston accent with a Southern one.
What was your father getting his Ph.D. in?
American History. It’s either irony, or perfectly prescient. He wrote his dissertation on the beginnings of Radcliffe College (I think it was called the Harvard Annex back in the 19th century), not knowing that one day his daughter would go there and see his dissertation on the shelf in Schlesinger Library.
What were you like as a kid? How would you describe yourself?
Being the only girl and the baby, I always felt I had ample attention, or that I was the center of attention. I was really happy. My oldest brother is four years older. My other brother is two and a half years older. My most salient memories of my childhood were of the time I spent with my mom, doing things with her all day before I was in preschool and while my brothers were in kindergarten. She was 26 years old when she had me. Now that I’m way over 26, I see how young that is. We were like playmates. We did crafts all day. I’m told I was reading when I was three. I remember whenever we’d get into the massive boat of a station wagon we had, I’d say, “Ask me to spell something!” Or we would always play math games. By the time I was in kindergarten, my mom had taught me division. My brothers were also incredibly nice to me. I always wanted to hang out with “the boys.” That’s what I called them. I still do. I know it sounds like vague, bucolic memories, but it was really wonderful.
And did your parents have any specific philosophy in raising kids?
I got everything I wanted, but I never felt spoiled. I wonder if I was spoiled. I certainly feel like I was spoiled with attention, but not to the detriment of my brothers. I wasn’t the only one who got attention.
What I mean by getting what I wanted is that my parents gave me the opportunity to try whatever I wanted to try—ballet, tap, soccer, tennis, art, singing, acting. And they supported me in my endeavors by taking an interest but not being pushy.
Education was very important. So growing up, I remember always seeing my parents reading. And reading was something I loved doing since I was three. My earliest memory is sitting in a rocking chair on my mom’s lap and she was reading me The Giving Tree. She started crying and I was too young to understand how meaningful that book is. If I read it now, I would have an absolute breakdown. I remember a lot of times my dad reading me Dr. Seuss as well.
My fondest memories of my dad were of when I was in high school and I was already professionally acting. He would pick me up after school and drive me to auditions, so I could do my homework in the car. I remember learning how to think about literature from my father. I didn’t feel I got it from my English teachers in my public high school. Not that they weren’t great, but I really felt I learned how to think critically about literature from my dad. I remember being in traffic on 285 in Atlanta going to an audition and reading the Scarlet Letter and my dad was asking me questions (I guess it was the Socratic method) about the book. In my answers I was like, “Oh! Aha! Pearl—that character. She’s a wild child. How is a pearl formed? Pearl is formed from sand in a shell and it becomes a jewel from all the friction and abrasion. Sand gets into the wrong place and becomes something beautiful.” I feel those seeds were planted really early on that I would grow up to study and love literature.
What was your mom’s educational background?
I think she was a math major as an undergrad. I’m trying to think if she got a master’s when she was younger. When she was older, in her late 40s, she got a master’s in comparative religion.
And did she work from home?
She was, what they called back then, a “homemaker.” She played tennis at least four hours a day. She was an astonishingly good tennis player. She volunteered at my school; she volunteered to teach Sunday school and ESL classes and work at a rape crisis center. This was while she was driving us around, making gourmet dinners, and doing things like baking and constructing gingerbread houses that deserved 90210 zip codes. She also went to church every single day, except Sunday. She would go to church early in the morning and be home by the time we got up to have breakfast.
Did she impose that religious rigor onto the kids?
It didn’t feel like an imposition. We were brought up Catholic. We went to church every Saturday. My parents preferred Saturday evening vigils to Sunday mornings, which was fine with us. I’m a horrible Catholic now in my adulthood. I’m Catholic by ethnicity, the same way plenty of Jewish people feel that they’re Jewish, but they don’t practice. Because, you know, as an open-minded, progressive, intellectual feminist, it’s extremely hard to be a good Catholic.
It was expected that we would go to church every “Sunday” until we left home. My mom was our CCD teacher. I’m very grateful for the structure; however, my sense of religion is completely conflated with my mother. My mother was…she died 10 years ago…she was so open-minded. She was fascinated by religion. She would take us to temple on Passover and we’d eat matzo, just so we would learn about other religions. If the Jehovah’s Witnesses came to the front door, she’d invite them in, make tea, sit down and say, “Tell me all about your religion.” They weren’t going to convert her, but she was fascinated by it. Saying that I was brought up in a religious household now connotes a strictness and an imposition of religion, but I didn’t experience it that way. I’m an actor, and Catholic Mass is full of theatricality, so I really liked it.
What made you get into acting at 11?
When I was three, I started taking dancing lessons. I just loved anything that got me into a costume and in front of people. I loved performing. I got the lead in the fourth grade play, because I probably talked more loudly than any of the other kids. All of a sudden something clicked. I like this and I’m good at this. Then I started taking acting lessons. I had always been taking dance and doing soccer. I took a little tennis here and there. I tried to play the flute, but very soon it became apparent that acting was the thing that made me the happiest and I wanted to focus on it. As I became a teenager, the other stuff fell away. And when I started getting some professional work, there was no time to do anything, but go to school and be an acting kid.
What are you good at besides acting?
I’m a writer. I’m producer on my radio show. I have co-created and executive produced some television pilots. And I’m really good at baking. This is a platitude, but I think usually whatever you love, almost invariably you’re really good at. I love to bake. I’m really good at it, because I’m patient and I don’t mind trying new things. Some of my friends love [my baking], some people hate it, because I’m always trying to pawn off my baked goods on them.
So cookies or cakes?
Anything white trash, anything sweet. Growing up in Atlanta, of course, the most stellar recipe is the Coca-Cola cake, which my mom was famous for making.
I’m also very good at challenging myself physically. Every day I have to work out. I don’t play team sports, but I do weight lifting, yoga, running, hiking, and kickboxing.
Sorry, one more thing, I’m really good at applying mascara. I have a whole system and people marvel at it. It’s very Southern. After you curl your eyelashes once, you dust them with translucent powder (a musical theater trick). That fattens them up. And you put on one coat, wait for them to dry, re-curl them, and then put on five more coats. [Laughs] It’s very complex. I should market it on QVC.
I saw an interview with you and you called yourself a geek. You loved homework and you loved going to Harvard. Why did you love all that?
I worked hard. I wasn’t a kid who didn’t have to study, then go in, take a test, and make an A. An analogy in my head is going to baking. I know this sounds weird, but hear me out. There’s something so satisfying about following directions with a dash of creativity, working hard, putting it all into the cake, and having it all come out right and delicious. I found my efforts academically were always rewarded. It was a pleasure to do math, to do science, or to read. It’s all part of seeking approval, too, which is a lot of being an actor. You do something right and you get rewarded from it, whether it be applause, or laughter.
I don’t understand not loving learning. I never understood when I meet people and they say, “Yeah, in high school I cut class, or I don’t remember high school. I was high all the time.” I just can’t wrap my mind around that. Whenever I’m doing something, if I’m not doing it to the best of my ability, it’s a complete waste of time. Even when I’m in kickboxing class and I see people going through the motions, I want to take the mic from the teacher and say, “You guys, it’s not about throwing a floppy punch. If you’re going to spend 50 minutes in this class, you want to max it out. Think about your form, people.” Which is obviously obnoxious and way too Debbie Allen as the dance teacher in Fame.
I also keep reflecting back to my parents. It was absolutely implicit that education was incredibly important, which didn’t necessarily mean you had to make straight A’s. I never once heard that. I never even once felt that. But school was important. You didn’t get to miss school unless you were sick. When I got older and was obviously a very good straight A student, it was okay with them to miss school and go do a show. It was clear I was not falling behind in my academics and I was doing what I love. It was also just understood that we would go to college. My parents weren’t kajillionaires. They sent us to a good public school. We never had to take out a loan. My parents could pay for whatever college I went to. That was such a blessing. I’m so lucky. I was spoiled in that respect. If you’re a good college student, you’re dedicating most of your time to classes, papers, and reading. To have to have a job on top of that and then leave college and pay off student loans, that must be incredibly difficult. So I’m very grateful that I never had to do work-study.
The other thing I was going to say about my parents being a role model…my mom was the multi-tasker bar none. She would do sit-ups while doing her rosary. She read a chapter of the Bible a day, so she would keep a little Bible in the console of her 280ZX. My mom was the mom who was never late. She was always five minutes early. I can picture her now with her head down reading the Bible as she waited for me, because inevitably I was going from one appointment to another like an audition, or soccer practice. God forbid a second goes by where you’re idle.
Was there anyone else who was influential, besides your parents? Did you have other kinds of mentors who were important, especially in your teenage years?
I looked up to my brothers very much. I was particularly close to the middle child—my second oldest brother, David, who is two and a half years older than I am. We were in high school at the same time at least for a year. My other brother was already off at college and a little bit more remote to me. But David is a genius. Everybody knew it. This guy speaks six languages fluently. He was just fantastic.
My parents did not set up any sort of sibling rivalry, but very early on I noticed people saying, “Oh, David is so smart.” I don’t think I realized it at the time, but in retrospect, I felt an innate sort of sexism in that. I was the only girl and I was always dressed in pretty pink things and I had on my little ballet outfit tutus. I heard, “Oh Faith, isn’t she so cute? She likes to perform.” I remember thinking, you only think David’s smart, because he’s a boy; because I wear a tutu doesn’t mean, I can’t be as smart as my brother. This wasn’t directed towards my parents, but more like grandparents who always thought David was so smart.
So my brother set this amazing example. And I remember thinking if he can get through high school with straight A’s, then I’m going to get straight A pluses. When you’re the youngest you get such an advantage, because you’re already around older kids. If you’re not competing with them, you’re at least setting your bar really high. When I was four years old, I raced my brothers (who are two and a half to four years older) down our very long gravel driveway. There was no question in my mind: I was going to beat them. I was wearing a dress with white tights and white patent leather shoes. I was compelled to win and I fell. I scraped my knee so badly that I have a scar on my knee to this day, which makes me smile at my own glorious self-delusion. I felt energized by the role model of my brothers.
I even remember my brother, David, coming home from Georgetown in his sophomore year and saying to my parents, “I have an advisor who thinks maybe I should apply for a Rhodes Scholarship.” I didn’t know what it was and I heard them talk about it. I thought of course David should win that, good for him. But I always remembered what the scholarship was and again it kicked in—if David might be good for a Rhodes Scholarship, then I might be, too. Of course, I never said that out loud. My parents never said it. When the time came in college, and my tutor suggested I apply, I remembered that thing, that Rhodes scholarship thing.
Did David ever apply?
I don’t think he did. He did Rhodes-y type things. He went to Japan for his senior year in college and taught English there. Then he got a master’s at Georgetown, moved to Russia, and opened up a business.
I’m sorry…a mentor. There is a woman. Her name is Lynn Stallings. She runs a children’s theater company in Atlanta. When I met her, she was much younger than I am now. I was a child and, of course, she seemed so old and fabulous. She was a mentor, even by just her very presence. She was the first person to pay me to act and it was a big deal to get paid at 14 years old. It wasn’t a ton. She wasn’t making a lot of money. To get even $25 for a show made me realize what a professional is and made me take this art (that I loved so much) very seriously and think I really could do this for a living. She was a very smart, warm, open-minded, patient woman. I’m very grateful to her for setting me on a professional path.
Can you talk a little more about her approach?
It was in her acting troupe that I learned I could be funny on stage and do improv comedy. I also started out in musical comedies and I kept auditioning for her company, but I wouldn’t get cast as one of the lead singers. She then told me in a very kind, constructive way that my voice needed work. Those are the magic words for me. If anybody tells me that I can’t do anything, or I should do something better, then boom, I’m going to do it with blinders on. So I started taking voice lessons and became a good singer. I credit her with that constructive criticism. It must be hard to say that to a twelve year old. A lot of the way she taught class and directed was through improvisation. Whether it was supposed to be a dramatic, or comedic scene, she’d set it up like, “Okay, you’re in a principal’s office. You’ve cut class for the third time and you don’t know it, but this time your mom is going to be in there waiting for you. Go.” Improv comedy is what I ended up doing on “Significant Others,” the television show that I was on for two seasons. And it helped me later with stand-up comedy, which I did for years. Even with my radio show now, there’s such a huge element of improv.
She really treated kids as equals and that made us act more adult and more professional. I was even teaching classes for her when I was 16 and 17.
With the Rhodes, is there any qualification that still stands out today for you in your life? Cecil Rhodes wanted people to work for the better of society. Does anything still resonate with you?
Very much so. In fact, more so now than then. First of all, I’m so grateful for the Rhodes Scholarship. To this day, I should write annual thank you notes to everyone on that committee who picked me. I was so blessed. It’s such an amazing honor, but that’s sounds superficial. It’s an amazing experience. When I won it, one of the men on the committee shook my hand and said, “Get ready for the best years of your life.” He said my wife is still jealous of the Rhodes. And I asked why. He said, “She met me afterwards. And it’s this part of your life that no one, except the people who went through it with you, will ever understand.” In a way, it’s kind of sad. I beg to think the best years of my life are ahead of me. But my god, it was amazing.
I applied for the scholarship being very open with the fact that I was an actor and I would want to continue acting and being in the arts throughout my time at Oxford and in the future. Not only is it a prestigious award, they’re also giving you a lot of money. They’re really investing in you. It’s incumbent on the people who get a Rhodes to give back in whatever way they think they can serve the world the best. And it is not conventional to say the arts are a way of serving the world. Most people [with a Rhodes] go onto Yale Law School, run for office, or write books. Certainly, a lot of them become management consultants at McKinsey, or work for hedge funds, or they become professors. It’s easier to see how that can help the world and affect young minds than saying, “I want to continue being an actor and deep down I want to be in a sitcom. I still think I’m worthy of this.” My whole premise was that academics and arts don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Interestingly, Harvard refused to endorse my application for the Rhodes, because they thought I couldn’t win one with artistic aspirations.
When I did leave Oxford for L.A., I spent a decade working really hard on being an actor, doing stand-up comedy and being in sitcoms and some dramas. I did become a regular on a sitcom for two seasons. It was never lost on me that I’m not exactly “fighting the world’s fight.” I don’t mean to paint a picture of what I’m doing with the radio show, or what I plan to do in the future too grand. But what I do now does come a little closer to “fighting the world’s fight” than starring on a sitcom, or getting a guest arc on a drama, which is to say I think “Fair Game” is unique in a lot of ways. I’m really proud to be a woman who’s the anchor of it and talking about politics in an irreverent way. I’m a feminist and I think it’s important to have women out there, who can prove women want to talk about relevant important political topics and also be funny about them. That’s not just the purview of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart, who do it so, so well.
Well, I love your show. You can interview people of serious publications like the “Foreign Policy” magazine editor-in-chief, Moises Naim, and still ask funny questions about street mimes. [In the show about the ongoing global crime pandemic, Faith said, “I want to know if you consider street mimes a crime, because I do.” Moises Naim’s response was, “Some of them. Let’s not generalize.”]
I do like asking questions I think they’ve never been asked. I did not think for a minute in my life that I would be producing, writing, and hosting a national public radio show (for Public Radio International). But it’s been so incredibly rewarding. I haven’t experienced something so fulfilling and challenging, since I was in college and grad school. It’s letting me use all the tools in my toolbox at once–everything from my education to my mind to comedy to performing, instead of just one of those things. I’m so lucky.
So how long does it take you to prep for a show? To research?
I have a great staff of producers and writers. There is a show a day. I work 13 to 14 hours a day. As soon as I wake up, I’m on the treadmill listening to CNN on the television ahead of me, reading the New York Times, and reading the book of one of the people I’m going to interview that day. The prep is an ongoing process; for example, if I have three authors I’m interviewing next week, I’m going start reading their books as soon as I can and watching a DVD of a director whenever I get it. During the day, it’s chock-o-block prep from our staff meeting at 10 am until we start taping the show at 4:30.
So acting isn’t on the back burner for you?
I’m never made a decision to put it on a back burner. There’s a ton of acting that goes into doing the radio show every day, because some of the time, you have to act like you’re fascinated by someone. [Laughs.] Or you have to act like someone’s not a jackass. But I am still writing and working on creating tv shows.
Let’s get back to your humor. I read the producers for the show weren’t looking for “smart-alecky cynicism”. So how would you describe your humor?
First of all, the disclaimer is I’m always a little bit embarrassed to call myself funny, because that just sounds self-aggrandizing, and comedy is personal—not everyone finds the same things funny. The producers and I had a sit-down about the word “snarky.” I said I don’t want that word ascribed to me ever and I don’t want to be part of a snarky show. I think “snarky” became a vogue word around 2002 with all those VH-1 clip shows. To me, snarkiness is cynical and sarcastic and is the easiest place to go. My humor comes from an improv background, which is trusting yourself to say what comes into your mind in the moment. For example, with the street mimes thing, it was certainly not a joke I thought I would make. It’s a playfulness. That’s the best word to describe my humor. People not only don’t mind laughing with their news, they want to. There is so much worth satirizing and there’s so much that’s sadly hilarious about the state of affairs today. It’s important to handle certain stories with the amount of reverence they deserve. Obviously, there is nothing funny about soldiers dying in Iraq. But there’s a way to frame things, look at the way people cover the news. Even when I’m interviewing a person who has written an article on US soldiers dealing with PTSD, I can approach him with a lack of conventional public radio formality and talk to him with candor and spontaneity.
Let’s go back to something more serious. How do you handle failure, or what’s your perspective on it?
I learned really early on, for better or worse, to be resilient. Because being a kid actor, or teenage actor, there were certainly lots of things I auditioned for that I didn’t get. I remember being in the car with my dad and not wanting to go to an audition. He very calmly turned to me and asked, “You want me to turn the car around?” But he wasn’t being mean. I had a pit in my stomach, because I hated going to auditions, but I thought, “No, no, I want to go.” So having to make those decisions as a kid steeled me for rejection.
How do I handle it? I certainly lean on my family and friends to buoy me. It’s funny the things you think are such big failures…the lack of perspective when you’re young. All I ever wanted was to go to Yale as an undergrad. I had my Yale cup in high school. I had my Yale sweatshirt. I was going there. Why wouldn’t they let me in? And I didn’t get in. I went to Northwestern. I hadn’t even thought of applying to Harvard. That came later. It was the biggest blow in my young life up until then, which I realize sounds really sheltered. There are kids whose parents got divorced, beat them, or didn’t have enough money to eat. And here’s me—oh my god, I didn’t get into Yale and I have this cup. That was the first lesson I got in you can do everything right—make straight A’s, take AP classes, have a 4.5 GPA, and be in every club—but the world doesn’t work that way. You can follow all the directions and not get rewarded for it, although I know I told you earlier one of the benefits of academics is that if you follow the directions, take the test, and write a good paper, you get an A.
That [lesson] set me in good stead for being out in L.A. and trying to be an actor. You can be talented, but you may suck at auditioning. They may want to cast someone else. You may not look right. I can’t say I’ve emerged without scar tissue. When I say I’m an optimist, I don’t think of myself as being the cheerleader type, but I have…well, I have faith. I’m focused at best, compelled at worst. I never quit acting. I never gave it up like so many people do. Whenever I’m told no, I just keep trying again. That comes back to being told I was special by my parents and that I could do anything. I believed them. Isn’t that foolish? [Laughs.]
I’ll also say this about failure. I grew up in a religious household and my sense of prayer was very much the prayers Catholics say. Certainly, I said them every time with my mom, but as I’ve gotten older and moved away from the Catholic Church, I do have a new way of handling failure which is also to pray in a new way. When I look back at my life and the way things unfolded, if I had been in charge, it would have been different. I’m grateful things did not happen the way I wanted them to–only in retrospect, of course. One of the ways I try to handle failure now is obviously the bromide of don’t look at it as failure, look at it as an opportunity to learn. And then I pray that God, the Universe, my mother, or whoever it is helping me out will point me in the next direction. As Anne LaMott calls it, “stepping into the light.” I wait for Someone to shine a light so I know how and where to step forward.
Here’s a question I ask everyone: what would you recommend to anyone young, or old about leading a fulfilling life?
Dare to find out what you love doing. It will usually be the thing you’re best at and dare to commit to it. Living a fulfilling, blissful life is rarely the easiest choice. It’s the bravest choice. So dare to follow your heart.