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PASADENA, Calif. -- Performer John Michael Higgins harbors a secret acting technique. He perfects his skill by ignoring it. Anybody who's seen him improvise in films like "A Mighty Wind" or "Best in Show," or watched his comic portrayals on shows like "Wilfred" or "Pitch Perfect" would never guess that Higgins cultivates his "art" by forgetting it as soon as he leaves the set.
"I'm not an actor who gets lost in my job or anything like that," he says in a quiet alcove of a hotel lounge here. "I leave work behind, go home, have great family life, and almost never consume entertainment products, just never do it," he says. "I don't watch film, don't watch television. I try not to."
That's very unusual for someone who's been acting since he was 9 years old. And yes, it was his idea at such a young age. "My parents were flabbergasted. I was flabbergasted," he recalls.
"It came out of nowhere. There's no actors in my family. I woke up and I knew exactly what I was doing. I was clear. I was in a school play, and I was good at it. My parents, thank God, were the type of people -- for not being in the business in any way, I don't even know why they were this way -- they said, 'If the motor is that, let's see what we can do.' They put me into plays and classes and quickly I became a professional actor who was doing juvenile roles on stage for many years."
Higgins keeps applying his "secret" as he does with NBC's new comedy, "Great News," premiering Tuesday. He plays the egoistic news anchor who intimidates everyone on the staff except the middle-aged intern who's there to champion her daughter, a fledgling TV producer.
Higgins, 54, confesses he's been acting so long, he doesn't think about it.
"I don't even separate it from myself. It's sort of what I am, not what I do. As I have aged, the good news for me is I went out of an obsessional phase with acting and film and theater and all that stuff -- because I'd done it so long -- I started looking around and saying there are other subjects that interest me."
That compulsive stage hung on for 10 years from the time he was 15, he says. "I was chasing after a kind of perfection. I wanted to learn from everything and make it better for the next time. I was constantly watching actors closely and seeing what works and what doesn't work. I was constantly remolding my own stuff. It was just working out my skills, refining whatever natural talent I have and building on to it. That became an obsessional thing for me, maybe it's the way my work ethic is, or my brain function. I was a very good student."
The world outside interested him in college, where he majored in history and English.
"I almost became an academic. It was a little more interesting to me than acting. But it wasn't something I was doing, it was something I was. I just WAS an actor. I knew how to do it. I knew how to tell stories that way."
But his calling grew even tougher when he became the father of a daughter, 13, and a son, 11.
"If it's a few months (between jobs) it gets panicky," he says. "They didn't ask to be here. The longest was four months without a job. I'm knocking wood on that. The problem with any amount of time is you don't know how long it's going to be. You enter the tunnel and there's no daylight, and then you're like, 'This could go for one mile or 100 miles and I don't know which one it is.' So you have to round up the wagons and say, 'It's 100 miles.' Then suddenly there's daylight."
Always true to the text as an actor, Higgins also has a keen facility for improvisation. The trick to that, he says, is simple.
"The whole game is listening. If you actually hear somebody, you'll say the right thing. You have to hear it though, you have to be interested. You have to be hungry for the information. The minute you have it, it comes in, you will respond, you can't help but respond. You couldn't hide it. That's great improvisation when you just do it and you move on," he says.
"I never sought improvisation out. I'm not very interested in it. It turned out to be something I'm good at, but I'm good at it because I'm interested in other things. That's all it is," he shrugs.
He met his wife of 14 years, Margaret Welsh, when they were performing "Arms and the Man" together. He says he forged an iron tight rule against dating actresses.
"She broke that rule. She was that extraordinary," he says.