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What character actor Bob Balaban says when people ask, “Hey, don’t I know you from ...?”

“I’m an actor. I’m not famous. You’ve seen me in a hundred million things, and you have a vestigial memory of what I look like.”

Premiere Of AT&T Audience Network’s ‘Condor’ - Red Carpet
Bob Balaban, at the premiere of Condor.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I’ve been doing my interview podcast, I Think You’re Interesting, for over a year now, which means it’s been over a year of my feature where I ask my guests a few of the same questions at the end of every episode, altering those questions for my guest.

I’ve gotten some great responses from this one: “What do people recognize you for when you’re out in public?” I usually ask that of great character actors, who have been in hundreds of projects, but don’t always have the name recognition of a Tom Cruise or a Julia Roberts.

One such actor is the great Bob Balaban, who’s been in everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (where he played a French translator) to several episodes of Seinfeld (where he played the head of NBC). Balaban is one of those people you would recognize out on the street but might not instantly know where you know him from.

Unless you’re watching his most recent project — the AT&T Audience Network spy thriller Condor, where Balaban plays a CIA muckety-muck — you might even think you know him from your real life. Like all great character actors, he sticks in your memory just enough to stand out, while also leaving himself enough room to pivot to play other parts in future projects.

So of course I had to ask Balaban what people recognize him for when he stopped by for my most recent episode. He had maybe my favorite answer yet — complete with a tiny speech he gives people when they recognize him but aren’t quite sure why. His response, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Mostly it’s Seinfeld. And sometimes it really is some movie that I forgot that I did, but they watched it on cable television 100 times. Or on the internet.

It used to be if you were a character actor, people almost had to study to figure out what you were in. But now they show everything you’ve ever done — even the most horrible things you wish would go away — they show them over and over and over again. So I get many different things.

I get a certain amount of the M. Night Shyamalan movie I did, Lady in the Water. I get that sometimes, which is interesting. Mostly, I get Seinfeld, and then very much, I get Ron Rifkin [another character actor who looks fairly similar to Balaban]. They think I’m Ron. They tell me things that Ron was in, and I go, “Yes, thank you so much. I’m glad you liked that.”

And often, I get, “No, no, I don’t know you from being an actor. You were in high school with my cousin.” It’s, like, “No, I wasn’t in high school with your cousin, but you know ...” I now have this little speech. It’s like, “Oh, don’t I know you ...?” And I used to go, “Well, I’m an actor.” “Well, what have you done?” And I would name five movies, and they never would have heard of any of the five movies.

So now I’ve got it down to a thing, which I mean, but at least I’m coping with it. I say, “You really don’t know who I am. I’m an actor. I’m not famous. You’ve seen me in a hundred million things, and you have a vestigial memory of what I look like. So you will not know who I am, and you’re not expected to. So that’s okay.” That’s mostly what it is. I look like somebody who’s been around a long time who looks familiar. And that’s true!

For more with Balaban, including great stories from his time on the sets of Close Encounters and Moonrise Kingdom, as well as the sorts of research he did to prepare for Condor’s look into the world of international espionage, listen to the full episode.

To hear more interviews with fascinating people from the world of arts and culture — from powerful showrunners to web series creators to documentary filmmakers — check out the I Think You’re Interesting archives.

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