Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Johnny Benson, as Bentley

Ahh, Bentley. Keith Bentley, in real life, is quite a character. As is Johnny Benson. So Johnny Benson PLAYING Keith Bentley... "hilarity ensues," is an overused, but completely appropriate turn of phrase.

Now, to be clear, the character of Keith Bentley is not really Keith Bentley exactly, but rather a characterization, and sometimes a caricature, of Keith Bentley, loosely based on my friend Keith Bentley, who actually is an artist, as is the character, Keith Bentley. Is that clear enough for you?

As with many of the characters in, "Smalltimore," I used friends, acquaintances, events and circumstances as jumping-off points - and then leapt.

When I first started writing this script, one of the most difficult things was, for me, to let go of my tight grasp on events and the exact details of how they transpired, and learn to massage them with a little poetic license until I could weave a bunch of interesting experiences I have had, fudging the details where necessary, into a cohesive storyline of events. Equally difficult for me was letting go of the characters that were based, albeit loosely, on people I know in real life, and letting the actor put their own spin on them.

For example: Keith Bentley actually did a screen test for the character of Bentley. But he was so nervous about it that he couldn't play the loose, funny, relaxed, neurotic, hot mess, hysterical Bentley that I know and love. And he was (is) living in Canada, which would have been a production scheduling nightmare. So, I had to cast the part.

I remember Johnny Benson's audition very clearly. Not so much what he read but how he read it and his general stage presence. I am pretty sure he was within the first FIVE people who read on the first night of auditions, so when someone sticks out in your memory 80+ people and two exhausting nights later, that is a pretty good sign. He didn't seem nervous at all, sort of threw away the lines, which is how Bentley often talks. I also don't remember exactly what he was wearing, but he definitely has his own style, which lies somewhere between vampire and pirate, if you can imagine a vampire or a pirate tending bar at a tiki lounge. I don't know if that makes any sense, if you know Johnny it might. Maybe that's just me. He's just so relaxed and comfortable with everyone at all times, you know, like all good bartenders are. I've never seen him in an awkward or nervous moment. And he owns a couple of cool Hawaiian shirts.

Ann Mladinov was my second pair of eyes at the audition. As soon as Johnny walked out of the theater, I looked at her and we both said, "Bentley."

Now, it wasn't as simple as that. There was another actor that we also both really liked as Bentley, and it was a very difficult decision between the two of them. There were a few deciding factors, and it really came down to the wire. Several people whose advice I trust were pushing me in the other direction, but there was something about Johnny that my gut was telling me, that's the one. I know in the end the right person got the part.

One of the factors that pushed me towards Johnny was that after a grueling day (about 6 hours straight) of callbacks, I had a little cocktail party for the actors so I could chat with them a bit more, and see how they interacted with each other as well. I know that for some, this was the most nerve-wracking part of the day. I could see it on their faces, and I empathized. How comfortable would you be, socializing, sometimes side by side with your competition, while talking to your potential director? I didn't envy them. But Johnny... he was so fluid, it surprised me that he didn't know any of these people already because he was so comfortable and sociable, I think he even exchanged contact info with a few of them, in case they, or he, didn't get a part in "Smalltimore," so they could still reach each other.

Some of my more experienced director friends warned me that I should not give bonus points to actors who can socialize so easily, nor demerits to the wallflowers, of which there were a few. But, to a degree, I disagree. If the wallflower is far and away a better actor, well then of course, it's no question, they should have the part. If it were just about being my friend, well then... Bentley would have actually played Bentley (I love you, Bentleeeeey...).

But when it is neck-and-neck... I'm going to go for the person who is blending with their potential castmates as if they were old friends. But what if they are doing that on purpose, you ask? What if they know that is what you are looking for and they are just giving you what you want to see? Well then, I say, that's really good acting! Sign 'em up!

Johnny was a pleasure to work with and had great chemistry with everyone, but especially with Cheryl (Gracie) and Kelly (Mel). One of my favorite scenes is the three of them in Dionysus, sitting on the sofa having a beer and picking on each other like only the best of friends can and get away with it. Johnny did a great job of nailing a certain aspect about Bentley (whom he has yet to meet). There is a way, in real life, that Bentley always seems to be the one being picked on, and yet he often manages to have the last laugh; the verbal "love slaps" just seem to roll right off him. He never overthinks anything, and he never holds a grudge. I have known him for almost exactly ten years and we have never had a fight. I once made a mean comment on one of his Facebook photos (which was meant to be funny, and would have unmistakably been if delivered in person) to which he typed a reply, "That was just mean," which, had that been delivered in person, would also have been unmistakably funny. But, fearing I had truly hurt his feelings, I apologized all over myself in a note. His immediate response was, "Good lord, are you drunk?!" He'd never take anything that seriously, as I should have known.

Johnny definitely put his own twist on Bentley, and once I saw where he was going with it, I pushed him to go even further. It worked very well and I think Johnny is funny in every single scene, but in no way buffoonish or slapstick. Johnny's humor is concurrently subtle and apparent. During production, I was on the phone with (the real) Bentley, and of course he asked about the guy I had chosen to play "him". "He's fantastic!" I said. "He actually plays it a lot like you, especially the chemistry between Johnny and Cheryl is a lot like the chemistry between us. But... he's like, a darker, more aggressive, sexually deviant version of you."

"Oh," Bentley said. "So he is playing me the way I think I am in my head."


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