Michael Pfaff, who has appeared in outstanding television shows such as “Sons of Anarchy”, “2 Broke Girls”, “The Librarians”, “Scorpion” and the four-part cable series “Fields of Valor”, as well as starring roles and stunt work in action movies “Let it Bleed” and “Lazarus Rising”, has also spent many years as a teacher. Before he even had his Masters, he was voted “Teacher of the Year” at South Boston High School. Since then, he’s taught and tutored the sciences for 15 years in both public and private schools in Boston and Los Angeles, as well as Educational Psychology and Public Speaking as an adjunct professor at the college level for five years. Not surprisingly, Mike has been named Teacher of the Year several times.
Now he brings his expertise as a motivational speaker and personal experiences with students to introduce The Student Within (https://thestudentwithin.com/) – Pfaff’s original approach to easier learning and personal fulfillment for kids to become a better student in the “classroom of life”. Within this process, he applies the means for students to tap into, cultivate, and motivate their personal strengths and bring about positive influence as they grow.
His unique combined skills of teaching, acting, and performing allows Pfaff to reach out easily to students and help them find sources of passion, direction, and learning abilities.
We caught up to Michael in between his busy acting and teaching schedule, and managed to land a pretty awesome interview with him, learning what makes him tick, and why he became an author. Then we played the Proust Questionnaire with him just to see how fast he could respond!
P&P: So, what inspired you to become a teacher?
MP: Do you remember that one teacher, mentor, coach or role model that really made a difference in your life when you were growing up – especially in those impressionable teenage years? I do. It made all the difference in my life and really helped put me on a positive path that I otherwise might not have taken. I wanted to be that person for someone else.
P&P: You plan to publish a book soon related to “The Student Within” program. Can you tell us anything about it?
MP: The book was written to empower students and improve the quality of their life through self-understanding. So many kids everywhere freely accept labels assigned to them that could inhibit their own self growth… whether it’s a test score, a confusing process to follow, a final grade or even worse – being labeled as a class clown, slacker, dreamer, dumb, or even smart. However, we are all capable of achieving greatness through our unique selves. By recognizing our own innate faculties and coupling them with specific pedagogical techniques we can uncover unlimited potential not only to learn new information, but to find an endless well of motivation. It’s been my personal joy for over 15 years of teaching to see that happen with countless students and I came to a point in my life and career where I wanted to see that happen on an a larger scale.
P&P: You’ve been in several TV shows and films. What got you into acting?
MP: Running was a big part of my life for a long time, it was my outlet for so many things. I put myself through Penn State on a track scholarship and was captain of both the cross country and track teams at Penn State my senior year. Afterwards, I wanted to take a shot at qualifying for the Olympic trials so ran for Reebok Boston. When I was in the best shape of my life I got hurt with a career ending knee injury. As a result, I needed somewhere else to put that passion and energy, so I started taking some Improv classes for fun, which turned into local theatre performances, student films, local commercials and then I was traveling for some theatre gigs, etc. I got to a point where I really needed acting and creative collaboration in my life and wanted to engross myself in the work and craft of an actor. So, I came to LA to study with the best teachers and studios I could find. As a result of that work, I started booking bigger gigs like network TV, National commercials and feature films. Without a doubt, acting has made me a better husband, a better father, a better friend and a better teacher. If you can’t justify and empathize with the characters you’re portraying, then you can’t do the work justice. Learning how to do that (which is a lifelong process, I’m far from done) has helped me to really take in and listen to those around me.
P&P: Okay, so how did you get started as a writer? And did your educational background help you with acting and teaching?
MP: One of the natural progressions of any actor is learning to write. If you need that creative collaboration in your life, but have limited opportunities to act (which is often the case), then you eventually start creating your own ways to do it. For me, it lead to wearing many hats, not just as a writer, but as a producer, stunt man, stunt coordinator, location scout, craft services… you name it. My Improv teacher at the Improv Asylum in Boston for example moved to LA years before me and continued to rise through the Improv world in LA to the point where his comedic timing, creativity and ideas were so good that he became a writer and showrunner for major network TV shows (The McCarthy’s, Bambi Cottages, etc.). I took a bunch of writing courses at various studios to expand my creative outlet. I started by writing and producing a bunch of short films, then wrote several feature films, etc. I think that gave me the comfort level I needed with the often uncomfortable feeling of spending real time in that chair to produce something on a blank page. It gave me a process, which led to my own unique way of doing things when it came to writing. I’ve always wanted to reach out to help more students and finally I had the tools to do it.
P&P: Where are you most comfortable writing and what sparks your creativity?
MP: Starbucks. I’ve found that I do much better (and am better able to hold myself accountable) when I’m surrounded by people. It’s still private enough where I can escape into my own mind and world to write, but public enough where I’m not tempted to procrastinate or take unnecessary breaks. Before I sat down to write my manuscript, I actually called my good friend, actress and author Lisa Genova (author of NY Times best seller Still Alice) to ask her advice on how she does it. I remember years ago when we were taking a Meisner acting class together (we were scene partners) that she’d often be coming from our going to a Starbucks to work on her novel (which was Still Alice at the time) before or after rehearsal. It turned out, she hasn’t changed. She’s since written many NY Times best sellers (Inside the Obrien’s, Love Anthony, Left Neglected, Every Note Played, etc.) all in the chair at a Starbucks. I took a page from her book (pun intended) and it worked like a charm. That’s not to say I don’t write at home when the inspiration hits or that I don’t jot down ideas in other places, but it’s Starbucks that provides the structure I need to produce… especially if I’m not in the mood.
As far as creativity is concerned, I tie that word to inspiration and creative inspiration comes to me from everywhere, especially my students. They inspire me all the time, especially when the endure a challenging task or problem to successful completion. I enjoy seeing the various ways their brains process and recall information. I also get creative inspiration from a performance – by an actor, athlete, musician, etc. I find creative inspiration in my daughter with her endless curious joy, and inquisitive nature. I find inspiration in my wife.
P&P: What are your favorite types of books to read?
MP: I love reading biographies. I’m always curious to see and hear what makes other people tick. I really find inspiration and hope in people who have overcome adversity. Some of my favorited biographies that I read were about Martin Luther King, Mahatma Gandhi, Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee.
P&P: Say you were introducing yourself to us for the first time. What are three interesting or crazy things about you that would dazzle us?
MP: I once jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet without being completely sure if the parachute would open. I streaked naked in college during finals week, but got thrown off course because I was being chased (butt naked) all by myself by a campus police officer. I used to run 100 miles a week for many, many years.
P&P: What is your favorite quote in literature?
MP: “Be yourself. Everyone else is taken,” by Oscar Wilde
P&P: What are the best and worst parts of being a writer?
MP: The best part of being a writer is organizing your thoughts into a piece of work that means something to someone, even if that only person is you.
The worst part of being a writer is being stuck or even worse losing your daily rhythm. I find writing is analogous with running. When you’re training every day, it’s easy to get up the next day and take a run, but if you’ve been hurt, sick or lazy for a while…then it hurts for a while before you find your groove again.
P&P: Do you have any advice for other writers?
MP: Write about what you know, which ultimately will be something you’re passionate about. Explore various processes to produce good writing and when you find a way of doing things that works for you, stick with it… not matter how strange it may seem to others. I used to know a writer who found inspiration writing outside near the Charles River in Boston… even in the freezing cold in the winter!
P&P: You’ve been a teacher for quite a while. What do you like about it the most?
MP: Working with kids. They’re the best. Kids can detect sincerity even more so than adults, so you learn pretty quickly that the best teaching comes from the heart. As a result, you live your life that way… or maybe that’s what originally drew you to the profession and this is a “what came first, the chicken or egg” question.
P&P: What is the first book that made you cry?
MP: I think it was The Old Man and The Sea. I remember feeling very sad when his situation was in the most despair, hopeless and completely alone. It made me really sad to think that no matter how bad his situation got, nobody was coming for him. At the same time, I think it can be a really empowering lesson on the importance of self-reliance.
P&P: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
MP: Writing usually energizes me because unorganized thoughts in my brain often exhaust me. If I’m able to find some order in a writing session, it’s not only a sense of relief, but gets me excited.
P&P: This is one of our favorite questions. Have you ever gotten reader’s (not writer’s) block? If so, how did you start rediscovering books to love again?
MP: I think reader’s block can be very similar to writer’s block. What I need to start moving as a reader or writer is a piece of inspiration. Topics that get my juices flowing are always shorter pieces of reading material such as new discovery articles in Science (NY Times just put out a fascinating article about how interstitium might be considered a separate organ because of the transportation potential it has between the circulatory and lymphatic systems thus leading to new methods to stop cancer from metastasizing), training methods of various athletes and people who have overcome adversity. That gives me the desire to invest more time to read longer material.
Similarly, when I’ve experienced writer’s block I was not feeding my natural faculties (which connects to motivation). So many people have “different windows” to find their way into the work – listening to music, being in nature, having conversations with various people all in their own mind, reading, walking, speaking with others, etc. If I tap into some of my own natural faculties I find my process again.
Recently I’ve rediscovered books to love again through audible (no I don’t work for them). The reason is I’m a very kinesthetic person, I love to move. I was an athlete my whole life (still am), study martial arts (currently taking Kung Fu), love to hike, swim, stretch, lift weights, etc… so having the ability to listen to a book while I’m doing that has been amazing. I know audio books have been around for a while, but for whatever reason this past summer I really started getting into it. I burned through about 15 books this past summer and sometimes even listened to the same book twice. I feel like the combination of listening to these books (a lot of biographies, inspiring stories, etc.) with the endorphin release I was getting while exercising heightened my awareness and reception of the message.
P&P: Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
MP: I guess it depends on what you’re writing and how you define writing. I think it would be pretty hard to write a novel and develop any kind of pathos for your characters if you didn’t have any emotions yourself. Conversely, if you’re writing a pamphlet on how to use Google Drive for non techies, you probably could get away with it.
P&P: How will publishing your first book change your process of writing?
MP: Feedback will probably be the #1 influencer of how my writing process evolves. The cool thing for me about The Student Within is so many of these ideas have been in my mind forever, but I never really tried to write a book. The life changing event I wrote about at the end of my manuscript happened well over 20 years ago. So, if I see a certain chapter or part of the book resonates with people more than others, I could easily recall where my thinking (which is connected to my process) was when I wrote that part. It might encourage me to explore similar modes of thinking.
P&P: What authors did you dislike at first but grew into later on?
MP: That’s a hard question. I know a lot of people (and I so admire this quality) who start a bad book and will continue to read a bad book all the way until the end… they’ll see it through even if they knew it wasn’t going to get any better. I might do that with an audio book, but if I’m going to sit down and read, it better captivate me (because to be honest, it’s hard for me to sit still). So I’m not sure if I gave authors a second chance if I didn’t like what I read the first time… I know that sounds horrible.
P&P: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
MP: One of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela is, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” I actually use that quote to emphasize the power of certain pedagogical techniques that emphasize linguistic intelligence in one of my chapters. I grew up in a really diverse community in Hackensack, NJ and heard many different languages spoken when I was growing up. While I didn’t grow up in a bilingual household (wish I did) myself, I do remember as a little kid that it meant business if a friend’s mother or father changed languages and started talking to him in Spanish or Italian. I think that sent a direct message at a very young age that language had power.
P&P: Do you plan to continue the role as action film star?
MP: I’m not sure if you can really call me an action film star, but thanks! I do LOVE action films… I am an action film junkie and always have been. I love and appreciate great stunt and fight choreography (could watch it over and over). So if people keep giving me opportunities to do it, I’ll always take it.
Now for the Proust Questionnaire. This is a questionnaire about personality. The name is derived from the responses that were given by Marcel Proust, a French writer, in 1890. So here we go!
- What is your idea of perfect happiness?
I think having fulfillment on all sides of an equilateral triangle of mind, body and spirit brings one closest to self-actualization. “Happy” could be hard to define. You could be gasping for air, in tremendous physical pain on mile 22 of a marathon wanting it to be over worse than anything in the world, but have never been “happier.” Things like family, love, friends, good health, spirituality, intellectual stimulation, etc. fall onto different sides of that triangle and together they all bring you closer to “perfect happiness.”
- What is your greatest fear?
Any kind of hate, pain or unfairness in the world that could affect my daughter.
- What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
If I feel I’ve been wronged by someone or something I could sometimes harp on it for too long.
- What is the trait you most deplore in others?
When people aren’t kind or patient with one another it really bothers me. Especially if I see someone being rude to someone in customer service who is trying their best to help.
- Which living person do you most admire?
You said living, but he just recently passed away, so I still have to go with Muhammad Ali. To stand up for what he believed in, have the courage and confidence he had, (not to mention the sense of humor) the ability to appeal to so many different people and the gift to inspire the world truly made him the greatest. If I’m going to mention recently deceased heroes though then I also have to mention Stephen Hawking and Roger Bannister.
- What is your greatest extravagance?
I’d say food. Even when I was dirt poor in college and grad school I always believed in never skimping on good food.
- What is your current state of mind?
I’m of the state of mind that’s in synch with the law of attraction. I’m currently experiencing everything in my life that I’ve put out into the world and I couldn’t be happier. It’s made me more adventurous (I’m trying new things constantly), empathetic and aware.
- What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
I hate to get political, but people quoting the 2nd amendment to support the sale of assault weapons which are responsible for countless mass shootings and deaths is at the top of my list.
- On what occasion do you lie?
Geez, these questions are good. We actually just had an advisory session discussing this topic at the school where I teach. We discussed a research paper by Dr. Bella DePaulo (“Lying in Everyday Life”) which found the average person tells a lie in one out of every five daily conversations. Typical reasons were lying to control a response, lying by omission, exaggeration and to avoid hurt feelings. I’d say my occasions are the latter – to avoid hurt feelings and/or to make someone feel good about themselves.
- What do you most dislike about your appearance?
I wish I wasn’t so pale and got some of my mother’s beautiful olive toned skin (she’s 100% Italian).
- Which living person do you most despise?
- What is the quality you most like in a man?
- What is the quality you most like in a woman?
- Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I’m embarrassed to admit that my wife and I started calling each other “Pookie” as a joke, but it stuck. We both say it way too much now.
- What or who is the greatest love of your life?
My daughter, Emma.
- When and where were you happiest?
Different stages of my life have brought different kinds of fulfillment and “happiness,” so that’s hard to answer. That being said though, the immediate feeling you have after crossing the line in a race knowing you gave it your absolute best is the immediate thing that came to mind.
- Which talent would you most like to have?
To learn and speak different languages quicker than anyone in the world.
- If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I wouldn’t have all the sports related injuries (3 knee surgeries, sports hernia, broken thumb, etc.) I acquired.
- What do you consider your greatest achievement?
I’m proud of a lot of the things I’ve achieved in my life, but getting a track scholarship to run for Penn State University and becoming captain of the cross country and track team there will always be one of the top ones.
- If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would
A “thing” can almost by anyTHING right? I’d like to be a thing that has all of the powers any X man every had all wrapped up into one… so I could fly, walk through walls, stop time, never age, etc. Hey… you asked.
- Where would you most like to live?
I absolutely love California, I think it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. I’m happy here.
- What is your most treasured possession?
I’m not a very materialistic person, but I’d say it’s my wedding ring.
- What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
Not knowing compassion, empathy or forgiveness.
- What is your favorite occupation?
An elite athlete playing in the NBA or one of the best miler’s in the world would probably be it. After that, acting and/or teaching.
- What is your most marked characteristic?
I’d say I’m very thorough, especially when it comes to workouts.
- What do you most value in your friends?
Understanding. I think in the end that’s all we really want.
- Who are your favorite writers?
J.R.R. Tolkien, Stephen King.
- Who is your hero of fiction?
- Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Joe Clark (an inspiring inner city principal from a neighboring town where I grew up in NJ).
- Who are your heroes in real life?
Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Steve Prefontaine.
- What are your favorite names?
Emma and Mikayla.
- What is it that you most dislike?
- What is your greatest regret?
Not starting acting earlier in my life.
- How would you like to die?
Peacefully in bed surrounded by my family.
- What is your motto?
Create your own luck.