Acting natural

Jason Kaufman brings acting chops to Wright State

By Jim Hannah

Photo: Jason Kaufman, Wright State assistant professor of acting; photo: Roberta Bowers

When he was growing up in Cleveland, he and his father would go to the movies together every Friday night. He saw Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront” when he was only 6 and took in “The Al Jolson Story” seven times.

Fifteen years later, Jason Kaufman’s love affair with acting took off like a rocket when he bet a friend he could land a part in a community theatre production and did. Since then, he has been “killed” by Dexter in the popular television series Dexter, had parts in Without a Trace and CSI: Miami and played a hot dog-eating New York City cop in the 2005 movie “Fantastic Four.”

Today, Kaufman is an assistant professor of acting in the Department of Theatre, Dance and Motion Pictures at Wright State University, where he is sharing his acting and filmmaking experience with students hoping for careers on Broadway and in Hollywood.

“My goal is to get the students prepared professionally so they are their own corporation, their own company,” Kaufman said. “They need to understand their brand, know who they are.”

Kaufman was attracted to Wright State because the university offers a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.

“I wanted to teach students who were serious, who were dedicating four years of their life to the craft of it, knowing they are going to go out and try to use it,” he said. “To be successful, students must be motivated and driven.”

Wright State is engaged in a $150 million fundraising campaign that promises to further elevate the school’s prominence by expanding scholarships, attracting more top-flight faculty and supporting construction of state-of-the-art facilities.

Led by Academy Award-winning actor Tom Hanks and Amanda Wright Lane, great grandniece of university namesakes Wilbur and Orville Wright, more than $107 million has been raised so far.

Kaufman teaches everything from acting for the camera and acting technique to the business side of the career, such as how to build a résumé and find an agent. He would like his students to make movies at Wright State that they can submit to film festivals after graduation and refer to in job interviews.

“If you have something to talk about, people are willing to listen,” he said. “And there is no better training than working.”

Kaufman comes from a family of achievers. His father is an attorney, his mother is an accomplished realtor and his brother is a wildly successful real estate agent who sold his first house at the age of 15 and has since posted more than $1 billion in sales.

When Kaufman was working on his anthropology degree at Miami University in 1991, he studied abroad in China and got a job at a Beijing television station correcting the grammar of the English translations of the news that scrolled at the bottom of the screen.

“I was always a hustler, and you need that in the entertainment business,” he said. “I was always looking for new experiences.”

And then the entertainment business came calling when Kaufman landed several small parts in the “The Boys Next Door,” a play at the Oxford (Ohio) Community Theater.

“My knees were shaking on the stage,” he recalled. “I was petrified. But the sense of community I found, I absolutely adored.”

Six months later Kaufman found himself in New York City studying acting, reading every book on it he could find and sleeping on a buddy’s couch.

“I devoured the craft of it,” Kaufman said.

He studied at the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, posed for magazine ads, did commercials for Ford, Time Warner and other companies and got parts in small plays. At age 28, he got into the Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvard University, which enabled him to study in Russia. (He remembers touching the curtain on the stage of the Moscow Art Theatre, where Chekhov wrote his plays.)

In 2005, Kaufman returned to New York City, where he was cast in “The Cherry Orchard” at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It was there that he acted alongside such stars as Jessica Chastain, who was later nominated for an Academy Award for her leading role in the military thriller “Zero Dark Thirty.”

At age 31, Kaufman moved to Los Angeles, where he began landing parts in television and movies, including Dexter, Medium and The Unit.

In “Fantastic Four,” he was cast as a New York City policeman critical of the superheroes’ crime-fighting efforts. However, the scene did not make the final cut.

“It was such a great scene too,” Kaufman said. “The whole time I’m eating hot dogs. I had to eat like 35 hot dogs in the middle of Madison Square Park in New York because you have to do so many takes.”

Throughout his acting career, Kaufman’s colleagues would come to him for advice.

“I was always teaching,” he said. “Even when I first started, people were asking me for help because I just devoured the craft. I made myself sit down and understand it because it was the hardest thing I ever tried to do.”

When Kaufman went to Shenandoah University in Virginia as a guest artist to teach students how to do television commercials, he realized that academia was the place for him.

“I loved being around the students. I hadn’t felt that creative energy for a long time,” he said.

In August, he joined the faculty in Wright State’s College of Liberal Arts.

“There is a lot for me to learn here, which I’m excited about,” he said.

Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Jim Hannah at

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