She’s the striking woman standing behind Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene on the set of Clint Eastwood’s latest film. She’s a nurse in, of all things, the musical episode of Grey’s Anatomy. She exchanged “good mornings” with Ed O’Neill while waiting for the cameras to roll on Modern Family. Her name is Paris Benjamin, and she is a working Hollywood actor.
Life on a set may not be as glamorous as those of us who only dream of such a job might imagine. Nevertheless, the opportunity to work with big names in Europe or the US can make the long hours, auditions, and continued acting classes worthwhile. Her recent job experiences highlight not only the reality of being an actor in Los Angeles but emphasize differences between the US film and television industry and that in the UK or France.
Not surprisingly, Paris hails from Paris, France, where she found her first agent and auditioned for the Jack Waltzer workshop. A longtime member of the Actor’s Studio, Waltzer not only starred in numerous theatrical productions but was handpicked by Lee Strasberg to teach at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute in New York. To be accepted for Waltzer’s workshop was a notable early step in Benjamin’s career, and she highly praises his teaching. “Jack’s method was exactly what I was looking for. He taught me everything I know today. I was incredibly lucky to be accepted in his workshop, knowing that he was working privately with the most prominent figures of Hollywood. I still work with Jack when I can; one thing I learned from American actors is that constant training is vital to one’s craft and development.”
Benjamin next traveled to London, where she signed with another agent and worked in theatre and films in the UK before deciding that “the next logical step was Hollywood.” Although well aware that acting “is a job and a business”, she claims that all remaining illusions of glamour fell away during one of her first evenings in Hollywood. “I was sitting at the terrace of a coffee shop on Hollywood Boulevard one night, a couple of weeks after I got here, and witnessed the preparation of a big movie premiere across the street. There were two lights, one camera and a small red carpet on the bumpy sidewalk. But I have no doubt it looked all glamorous, beautiful and gigantic on TV.”
The reality of the acting profession hasn’t deterred Benjamin from her career aspirations. In Europe she already had contacts and a body of work experience, but in Los Angeles she had to make new contacts in the US industry. Benjamin, however, knows that “starting from scratch in Hollywood as an established actor is completely different from being a new actor in town who just graduated from drama school. Many situations with which I’m confronted on a daily basis are situations I have encountered at least once in the past, and I just need to apply what I’ve already learned.” She smilingly adds that “even though you are dealing with a different business [in the US], you are still dealing with human beings, and we are not so different on the other side of the pond.”
The life of an actor anywhere involves plenty of patience to wait while people, equipment, and sets are readied before that all-important command, “Action!” Crafting take after take while directors try different approaches, shoot different angles, or, sometimes, correct a flubbed line or missed cue is just another day on the job. Nevertheless, the business of making a television series or filming a feature differs by nation.
Just how different is it to work in Europe as opposed to the US? The actor explains that “working in Europe for a long time gave me a very strong foundation to move to Hollywood. London and Paris are not as similar as people would think. The industry in both countries is very small and provides some of the best films and plays in the world, but if I had to make a comparison between the two, I would say without a doubt that London is much more open. If you bang your head long enough on the same door in London, you will end up with a big bruise, but the door will eventually crack open. And sometimes one little opportunity is all you need. If you do the same in Paris, your head will split open, and the door will remain closed. In London, maybe because of the wonderful cultural diversity, more ethnicities are represented, and at one point you will find the role that fits you and that a certain audience will relate to.”
Of French and Moroccan descent, Benjamin likes the diversity of roles that she is finding in the US. Another benefit of now living in L.A. is that “people respect the fact that you made the move to Hollywood, and I am always surprised to see the number of people who are actually willing to help and give valuable advice.”
Benjamin finds US actors’ and crews’ quality of and commitment to work inspiring. She praises her co-workers’ “incredible work ethic and passion about what they can accomplish.” However, this passion also “makes the competition very fierce because there are a lot of people who are very good at what they do.”
Paris on the set of J. Edgar
So far Benjamin has a very competitive edge. “I had the most incredible opportunity to be on the set of J. Edgar.” The Clint Eastwood-directed film about the controversial life of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is scheduled for release in 2012. Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the title role, and the cast includes Josh Lucas, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, and Judi Densch.
Although Benjamin is highly professional, she couldn’t help but be a little bit starstruck on the set. “Watching Leonardo DiCaprio work and having Eastwood right there giving directions was the most amazing feeling ever. I think you need days like that, especially when you are in a new country far away from everything that you know. It reinforces the feeling that you made the right choice. If I had had any doubts about what I came to the US to do, they were dissipated as soon as I walked in the Warner Brothers lot that day.”