I was 11 years old the first time I met actor Peter Coyote. My father, who had become friends with Coyote through the San Francisco Zen Center, arranged for us to have tea so I could ask Coyote questions about a career in the performing arts. Just the year before, he had earned global attention for his role as the government agent “Keys” in the 1982 classic E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Coyote sat across from us in a brown suede armchair in the living room of his San Francisco apartment. I still remember his warm, good-natured smile and the long strand of brown hair that fell in front of his blue eyes. “I think the best advice about learning to act is to study people,” Coyote told me, his voice like a combination of thunder and dust. “Become a student of humanity. Observe people. On a daily basis, find someone to study, analyze, and imitate.”
Coyote has since acted in over 100 films and TV shows, including Cross Creek, Jagged Edge, A Walk to Remember, Patch Adams, Erin Brokovich, and The Comey Rule. But he may be best known for his distinctive, husky voice, which has served as narration for over 200 documentaries, earned him two Emmy awards for narration, and established Coyote as a quintessential component of the American documentary, particularly those produced and directed by Ken Burns.
What most people don’t know about this prolific actor and narrator is that he is also a longtime Buddhist and Zen priest. In 2009, during a week-long sesshin at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California, Coyote experienced a kind of spiritual “awakening,” which he eloquently describes in his second memoir, The Rainman’s Third Cure. His teacher, Lewis Richmond, then urged him to follow a three-year training to become a Buddhist teacher. After much reflection, Coyote decided to become ordained and did so in 2016 with the understanding that part of the eightfold path is to help others.
Coyote will turn 80 this year, and he still teaches both Buddhism and acting. His latest book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Meet Buddha: Masks, Meditation, and Improvised Play to Induce Liberated States, comes out this month. The book details his approach to teaching acting through mask work and meditation. So decades after our first meeting, I reached out to Coyote for a second interview to learn more about the book and the intersection of Buddhism and acting, both disciplines he has called “transformative.” I wanted to know, have Zen meditation and Buddhist practice played a role in Coyote’s success as an actor and narrator? Has he ever meditated on set? What drew him to Buddhism in the first place?
Coyote says he encourages actors to study meditation to find freedom from their own personality. He points out that the personality and the self are two separate entities, and that the actor never loses his authentic self. “Meditation gives actors the ability to stay out of their own way and to discover the limitlessness of self that acting requires. I tell actors that when you meditate, you’re going down to ground zero. . . there’s no impediment between you and experimenting with the character. There’s nowhere you can’t go.” He goes on to clarify: “It’s not as if ‘the self’ and the character are two separate geographies. One is always oneself. . . The trick is to let go of your personality long enough to get clear intuitions of the character as the spinal telephone dials him in.”
Or, as the 13th-century Zen master Dogen wrote, “To study the self is to forget the self.” The actor’s instrument is his entire self, and actors spend time studying their own memories, emotions, and physical self the way an oboist, say, would study the oboe.
“To study the self really means to see through how the self enchants us,” Coyote continues. “And then as you do that, it leaves you to be free to put your attention and awareness somewhere else. And that’s the forgetting of the self. But you need to have a very strong ego to be able to step outside it. You need to be secure that you’re not going to dissolve.”
In his newest book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Meet Buddha, Coyote details how both meditation and mask work can suppress the ego, allow for playfulness and spaciousness of the self, and help actors realize their full potential. He describes how meditation practice and bringing one’s attention back to the breath and body can strengthen an actor’s discipline. Mask-based improv, meanwhile, can “soften the sense of self by encouraging actors to explore attitudes, feelings, physical postures, intentions, and behavior beyond the perimeter of their habitual personal norms.” By wearing masks that appear emotionally neutral, his students must use their own physicality to convey the emotional landscape of the character that emerges when they put on the mask.
Beyond forgetting the self, another Buddhist concept Coyote calls upon in his art is compassion, which can help actors get into the minds and motivations of characters that are different from themselves.
“Little by little, [compassion] takes you in and you begin to flesh out the internal life of this person. I always felt like a good actor has to be a defense attorney for his character,” Coyote says. “In forty years of teaching, I’ve never failed to have someone find a character. Sometimes I’ll have to get them to change their head or move. And then they become that person, their voice is different, everything is different. And with the evacuation of their normal personality goes their self-consciousness, their second-guessing, their self-criticism, their shyness.”
On a related note, when I ask about his experience of fame, Coyote says, “My suspicion is that charismatic people are actually people who never abandon themselves completely. So instead of always studying other people to see if they’re liked or how they’re ‘going over,’ some part of their consciousness is just tracking their inner life, and for some reason that seems to captivate other people.”
When narrating a Ken Burns documentary, Coyote does not read the script ahead of time. Through decades of meditation, he has trained himself to be able to get down to a state of being “empty,” so that he feels completely present and attuned to his own response when reading a script aloud for the first time. When narrating, he avoids adding layers of emotional recall or sense memory. Coyote says if he were to add more feeling on top of his spontaneous narration, he would be “oppressing” the listener.
Of his iconic voice, he says: “If I have a gift, it’s not the quality of my voice. It’s that I can take the reader with me through difficult phrases and apposition and curly-cues of the text. . . I can carry the reader with me, that’s really what I do better than anything. I want to hook [their] attention, and I want to take [their] attention with me through the text.”
Coyote’s life has not always been as peaceful and centered as it is today. “I’m sort of a PTSD survivor of a very violent family,” Coyote says. “And the way that I survived was locking my emotions away. And developing a kind of clarity.” He continues, “My dad came home every day like a hand grenade rolled into the room, and we were all watching to see if the pin was pulled. So, if I was frightened, if I was insecure, I might be missing life-threatening signals. Unfortunately, that trauma has worked against me as an actor. I don’t have ready access to my emotions. Actors don’t have to be smart, but they have to be emotionally literate. They have to have ways of translating the story into emotional literacy.”
Upon graduating from Grinnell College with a degree in English Literature, Coyote moved to San Francisco and joined the counterculture movements of the 1960s. During this time, Coyote lived in a commune, did drugs, and worked to create social change by providing meals, clothing, and shelter to those in need. He participated in nonviolent protests against the war in Vietnam and questioned the established capitalist culture. At the age of 27, inspired by a vision experienced while taking peyote, he changed his name from Robert Peter Cohon to Peter Coyote. Then, in 1974, Beat poet Lew Welch introduced Coyote to another poet, Gary Snyder, who was a longtime Buddhist. The two became close friends. Snyder’s friendship inspired Coyote to study Buddhism and end his relationship with drugs. He credits Zen meditation and psychotherapy with helping him transform from a heroin-using hippie to a drug-free Buddhist practitioner.
Coyote also credits meditation with helping him process his painful childhood and with navigating the intensity of working in Hollywood when, in the early 1980s, he decided to try acting. As a single father who had recently married, Coyote thought that acting was a skill he could hone to earn a living. He gave himself five years to become a professional movie star. “I was very worried about going into the world of ego, greed, self-promotion, money, and status—all these things that were contrary to my values. One thing I decided was that since I didn’t control the content of the films I was making, I could only control the way I made the movie—in other words, my personal behavior.”
Beginning with his very first film acting gig, Coyote says he has made an effort to treat everyone equally and compassionately, from the director and his fellow actors to the production assistants and cooks. He makes a point of avoiding arguments, rumors, and competition. Even if he is not spotted meditating on set, someone will inevitably ask if he has some kind of religious faith that keeps him so steady. “I just learned how to govern my own internal reality,” he says. “Loyalty to the precepts and to the eightfold path are what [have] kept my priorities straight and kept me centered.”
Reflecting on starting out, he says, “I was completely polite, I had no attitude, no nothing. And I’d usually start by saying, ‘I’m curious about your take on this movie. [Eventually] They said, ‘’Wow, this guy has something.’ What I had was personal power because I didn’t give it away.”