[6 April 2011]
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.”
Perhaps not surprising to fans of the director, Eastwood on the J. Edgar set knew exactly what he wanted to achieve and how to go about getting the job done right. For new-to-Hollywood Benjamin, he was the ideal director. “Everyone on a Clint Eastwood set is genuinely excited and happy to be there. He makes you feel very welcome. He also makes everything look effortless. He is very quiet. He will say a couple of words for you to know what you have to do, and before you know it, it’s a wrap. He will take two or maybe three takes, and you know it’s going to be pretty much perfect.”
As if working with such Hollywood royalty weren’t enough, Benjamin also found herself wearing a beautiful period costume. Especially on a film like J. Edgar, set nearly a century ago, costumes help establish the film’s mood and tone, but they also can help an actor approach a role. “Costumes are very important if not essential to create your character. Period costumes have a tendency to give you a better feel of who your character is right away because they are more likely to make your posture, your walk, your attitude, and your movements change. All those elements have an instant impact on how your character thinks.”
The life of a working actor requires the ability to shift mental gears quickly. Benjamin has worked on the set of TV series and had offers for feature films. From an Eastwood-directed drama to The Muppets with Amy Adams and Jason Segel is quite a leap, but one that Benjamin was eager to make, in part because her inner child has never grown up. Another favorite memory from this spring’s filming involved “watching my favorite Muppets, Statler and Waldorf, on their balcony,” an experience that made one of her childhood dreams come true. Plus, “it was a riot watching Miss Piggy get her hair and makeup retouched between takes and seeing Kermit rehearse his guitar moves for his next scene!”
Benjamin enjoys working in live theatre, where anything can happen during a performance, but she prefers the variety that film roles offer her. “I like to keep things fresh and move on quickly to the next project, and making films is perfect for that. You work hard on a character, and even if the shoot is stretching over a few months, you are still playing different scenes, so it feels like it’s always new. The major problem with films, though, is that they are rarely filmed chronologically, so it’s not always easy to know where your character is at emotionally.”
Between films, Benjamin recently worked in two ABC television series, Grey’s Anatomy and Modern Family. Like the theatre or film, television provides its own unique challenges. The actor explains that “TV is very fast compared to films. An episode usually needs to be wrapped in one week. If you don’t finish what you were supposed to film during the day, it could have a serious impact on the rest of the production.”
In that respect, the US and British television industries share a common fixation on time. Benjamin’s experience on US sets reminds her of friends’ comments about making a BBC serial. The actors sometimes received that day’s script while they were in makeup in the morning. Having the ability to memorize lines quickly is a skill Benjamin learned during her first play, and it’s a handy ability to have when she is hired for a single TV episode.
Even with the speed of television, Benjamin had plenty of time to observe cast members in front of the camera and between takes. From her observations behind the scenes, Benjamin understands why Modern Family is a hit. She dishes that the cast is “absolutely hilarious, between and during takes. Eric Stonestreet, who plays Cameron Tucker, is a performer at heart. He was very entertaining between takes. I am sure that it helps knowing that your show is a hit and has been picked up again by the network for a new season, but I really felt like what you see [behind the scenes] is what you get [on TV], and that even if the cast did not already have the reassurance of being picked up, it would not change their enthusiasm.”
Paris on the set of Grey’s Anatomy
Despite Benjamin’s past success in finding work in films and on television in Europe, she admits that acting is a perennially difficult job. “Finding the next job that will pay the rent and make you hold on long enough until you get the next one is the difficulty of this business here. Los Angeles is so vast you can lose yourself waiting for something to happen, and yet the business itself is so contained. No one ever said it would be easy, but to me that’s also part of the excitement of choosing this career.”
Now that she’s made the big move to L.A., Benjamin looks toward the future. “It is a difficult career, and you have to be sure that you are ready to accept and embrace all the challenges and the frustration along the way, but so far, acting has been the most exciting medium I have found to express myself and keep my life exciting. It’s a bumpy ride, but the rewards are priceless.”
To keep her focus firmly on her career, Benjamin created a list of actors and directors in the US with whom she wants to work. Where does she envision her career in five years? True to Paris’ burning ambition, she doesn’t hesitate to reply: “I will have ticked a few names off that list.”
Lynnette Porter is the author of Benedict Cumberbatch, In Transition: An Unauthorised Performance Biography (MX Publishing, 2013) and The Doctor Who Franchise (McFarland, 2013), and the author/editor of Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century (McFarland, 2012), among many other books and chapters about television or film. She writes the monthly PopMatters column Deep Focus and wrote two essays published in PopMatter's Joss Whedon book (Titan, 2012). Dr. Porter is a professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences Department at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida.