BWW EXCLUSIVE: Benjamin Walker On FIND THE FUNNY, ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON & More
Today we are talking to one of the brightest stars of the new millennium who has made a name for himself on Broadway with impressive performances in straight plays and musicals, as well as comedic and dramatic films and even stand-up comedy, as we shall see on Tuesday night for his ongoing monthly comedy showcase now at Joe's Pub, FIND THE FUNNY - the preternaturally talented Benjamin Walker. Looking back on his performances on Broadway, from INHERIT THE WIND opposite Christopher Plummer and Denis O'Hare all the way to his starring role in the recent emo rock musical BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson, Walker discusses his perception of the roles he has played so far as well as the finer points of working on those shows, in addition to shining a light on his stand-up comedy roots, how he came to devise FIND THE FUNNY and what we can expect from the show on Tuesday night. Plus, Walker clues us in on his new feature film title role in ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER, as well as shares details on his re-teaming with Christopher Plummer in the new Stephen Frears film Muhammad Ali'S GREATEST FIGHT. All of that and much, much more!
FIND THE FUNNY will be presented on Tuesday, April 3, at Joe's Pub at 9:30 PM. More information is available here.
PC: Have you always intended for theatre to be your primary pursuit as a performer or did you have a desire to explore film, as well?
BW: Oh, I love theatre - I mean, I went to a theatre conservatory. I love live theatre and being in front of people - that's why I love stand-up; it's that raw experience of theatre at its most basic. It's one person in front of a group of people and you are sharing a story together - that's one of the greatest thrills of being alive.
PC: How eloquently put. Steven Pimlott once said that theatre is a collective dream and the actors are the directors of the dream.
BW: Oh, wow - that's a great quote!
PC: How have you seen theatre change in your lifetime - the mega musicals until now?
BW: Well, I think it is really changing - and I actually find it really exciting. There are certainly a lot of projects and vehicles for people from film and television - but, there is also some great new stuff; it may not be on Broadway or it could be on its way to Broadway, but people are still doing great things, I think.
PC: The audience just has to seek out the good work a little bit more than before.
BW: For instance, I just saw the dress rehearsal of PETER & THE STARCATCHER - it was so charming; so lovely. It has a bunch of really good actors - and that's all they need to be; they don't need some huge television credit. They're just good - and that's all that really matters.
PC: It seems as though we are blessed with talent in the theatre community but with few shows that fully exploit and showcase it - FIND THE FUNNY is an opportunity for the comically adept amongst them, yes?
BW: Oh, absolutely! I mean, this is an opening for them and there are certainly a lot of new, young artists out there - these are artists who we are going to see find their feet and start to really express themselves; and, we have a venue for them to do it at Joe's Pub. I think that, certainly, some of them will find their way to Broadway.
PC: How did you develop FIND THE FUNNY and found it in the first place? Can you give us some background on your comedy roots?
BW: Well, I started doing stand-up because my first couple years in drama school, they didn't let you perform for the public - you were always performing for your teachers and peers - and, I realized that I missed that kind of audience interaction. So, I started doing open mics and then I started doing larger clubs. Then, I noticed that, for young comics starting out, it's hard for young comics to get large sets - it's hard to find a place where you can really work out and try new material and have a consistent, intelligent, young audience. So, we started FIND THE FUNNY at a cabaret space in a bar, and, since then, it's kind of gotten wildly out of hand!
PC: You can say that again.
BW: Yeah, I mean, it's become this venue for younger comics to do large sets and for more experienced comics to try out new material.
PC: What a great opportunity you are offering them. You will be participating in the show on Tuesday, correct?
BW: Oh, yeah - we are at Joe's Pub now and they take really good care of us at the Public. You know, it's purely selfish on my part because I can go around the city and find comics that I think are funny and that I want to see work out and I can give them an opportunity to do so.
PC: How would you sum up FIND THE FUNNY as an evening?
BW: Oh, it's a lot - we have games and entertainment and music and, of course, comedy. Plus, for example, the band from BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson plays - Alex and the guys. You know, they just keep the doors open all night and we all drink and dance until they kick us out.
PC: It sounds like it will be a really fun night for sure.
BW: It always is - I am really looking forward to it.
PC: Looking back at your career so far, could you tell me a little bit about working on your Broadway debut in INHERIT THE WIND - especially memories of a fellow InDepth InterView participant, Denis O'Hare.
BW: Well, it was the best education I could possibly have had. I have Denis on one side and Christopher Plummer - this juggernaut - on the other; to just be onstage with them and learn the different ways that they both work was just a dream job. [Sighs. Pause.] They are just so fearless!
PC: They give it all, every time.
BW: They do! They do. Every time you are onstage with either of them, you never know what it is going to be - and, those are the kinds of actors that are really, really exciting to me.
PC: And Denis O'Hare has transitioned into film and TV with much success, as you have done - perhaps most prominently as the King of the Vampires on HBO's TRUE BLOOD.
BW: Of course! Of course.
PC: What do you think of Russell Edgington - pretty gruesome guy?
BW: [Abraham Lincoln Voice.] I'd love to cut his head off.
PC: Unless he ripped out your spine first, right?
BW: [Laughs.] Exactly! Exactly.
PC: Did you get a chance to see the king of all vampire shows, DANCE OF THE VAMPIRES?
BW: Oh, I sure did - I see everything, man!
PC: What did you think of that score, particularly having an affinity for theatrical rock as you do?
BW: [Sighs.] I don't know - there' just something about rock n roll that lends itself to story so nicely; and, to a sort of young culture, you know?
PC: I do.
BW: When you have that element, you know that it is automatically going to bring in a younger audience - and, I find that fascinating. And, I think that's part of where theatre is going and that's where it should go.
PC: Some being more or less successful than others - irrespective of quality. Speaking of another rock musical: what was the level of your involvement in the development of SPRING AWAKENING?
BW: Yeah, I did the workshop at Lincoln Center. To work with Michael Mayer and Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater and those guys - they really have got their fingers on the pulse of what is exciting and what is new, I think. I was honored to be a part of it.
PC: Did you play the role Jonathan Groff eventually played, Melchior?
BW: Yeah - I did.
PC: Was Lea Michele in it with you, as well?
BW: Yeah, yeah - Lea and Johnny Gallagher. I do think that it is definitely a very different story with me in that part - you know, me; I'm 6'3"! So, you know - it's just a very different story for me to be taking advantage of Lea Michele in a barn than it would be for Jon Groff, I'm afraid. [Laughs.]
PC: To say the least! You two are quite opposite in your stage personas. What sound do you think will be next in theatre? You brought emo punk rock to Broadway in BLOODY BLOODY, after all. Will it be rap, perhaps?
BW: I don't have the slightest idea! I am excited, though, because I know a lot of really, really talented people that are really making a push to tell some exciting and poignant stories - so, you know, I'm just buckling up and I'm going to enjoy the ride.
PC: Is it true that you will be re-teaming with your INHERIT THE WIND co-star Christopher Plummer - a newly minted Oscar-winner - in the new Stephen Frears film, Muhammad Ali'S GREATEST FIGHT?
BW: Yes, it is - we start rehearsals on that next week. It's going to be exciting working with him in the film format now. You know, when we were in INHERIT THE WIND, he was a great mentor - to the point where he'd even give me notes onstage. [Laughs.]
PC: No way! What happened?
BW: Well, one night, in one of the big court scenes where I have a big outburst and I stand up, he said to me, [Christopher Plummer Impression.] "OK, tonight, give us some real balls!" So, I stood up and I railed at the judge and did my scene, and, then, I sat down and looked over at him and he said, "Well, there's always tomorrow night." [Laughs.]
PC: That's hilarious! Do you aspire to achieve a career like his - moving between the mediums of film and theatre effortlessly and continuously?
BW: Oh, yeah - this man has just had an amazing career. You look at him now and it seems like he's just getting warmed up!
PC: He was great in BEGINNERS, as well.
BW: He certainly was - he really deserved that Oscar.
PC: Frank Langella appears in the new Frears film, too - are you looking forward to working with a great man of the theatre like him?
BW: Oh, yeah - he's another man that I admire for his craft and his career and his dedication. I think I can learn a lot just by being near him.
PC: What is Muhammad Ali'S GREATEST FIGHT about?
BW: It's largely about the court trial, actually, not the fight - which is a very exciting topic considering what is going on with ObamaCare in the Supreme Court right now. It's a kind of inside look into how these big cases take place.
PC: It's a period piece, as well - is that an exciting challenge for you? Early 70s, right?
BW: Yeah, it is - I mean, that kind of stuff, as an actor, is just a real treat to be a part of. And, with Stephen Frears directing?
PC: A master.
BW: Yeah - it's pretty much a homerun if I don't screw it up! [Laughs.]
PC: Before that, though, comes ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER in June. How did you become involved with that?
BW: Yes, that comes out in June. I got involved because Timur, the director, actually came and saw BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson - I guess I have inadvertently become the go-to guy for weird interpretations of American presidents. [Laughs.]
PC: Indeed you have! Were you familiar with the book?
BW: In terms of reading the book in preparation for the movie, we did a lot of Lincoln research. I was slow to read the book until we were all pretty much done shooting because, in my mind - and I think Timur and Tim Burton would agree - it is a period drama about Abraham Lincoln that also just happens to have vampires in it.
PC: It's an unexpected combination, but as PRIDE & PREJUDICE & ZOMBIES has proven, the mash-up of history and horror can work.
BW: Oh, sure - oh, sure.
PC: Do you anticipate that you will continue this path - three lead roles in three films this year alone - or do you see yourself returning to the theatre sometime soon? Besides the monthly FIND THE FUNNY, of course.
BW: You know, I haven't the slightest idea! I really don't - I'm telling you the truth. I merely want to work with people that I can learn from and also keep my health insurance. [Laughs.]
PC: Eye on the bottom line.
BW: Yeah, but, I mean, I do know that I will always return to the stage - my training is in the theatre and that is my first and strongest love. I will always return to stand-up, too - it is theatre at its most basic, after all. I think that those are certainly the places that you get strong as an actor.
PC: Without a doubt.
BW: So, to answer your question, in terms of what's next? I haven't the slightest idea - but, I know what I like and I know who I want to work with.
PC: And, no matter what, you'll always be "Andrew f*cking Jackson!"
BW: [Big Laugh.] Hallelujah!
PC: BLOODY BLOODY Andrew Jackson started out as essentially a pseudo rock concert at first, didn't it - a HEDWIG-esque piece?
BW: Right. First, they did it at Williamstown and then there were a number of different versions over a period of years. But, you know, that's what's great about a guy like Alex Timbers - who also has PETER & THE STARCATCHER, which starts previews this week - he is so collaborative and intelligent that the show works and every single version of it was a huge step forward in terms of its topical nature and in terms of it being a solid theatre piece and getting better and better.
PC: So contemporary, as well. I think it is one of the most important scores of the century so far - thank goodness the cast recording exists. Would you like to do a film of it someday? It would undoubtedly make a fantastic film.
BW: All I will say is: your mouth to God's ears.
PC: So, FIND THE FUNNY on Tuesday night at Joe's Pub, then shooting the new Stephen Frears movie and your life is pretty much an open book after that?
BW: Yeah - you know, I find that the more you get consumed with trying to find work, the work you actually have starts to suffer. So, right now, I am focusing on FIND THE FUNNY on Tuesday and I am focusing on the Stephen Frears movie after that. I am a one day at a time kind of guy.
PC: And FIND THE FUNNY you will be continuing every month at Joe's Pub for the forseeable future, then?
BW: Sure - the first Tuesday of every month. I mean, I get to be around comics that I find funny and exciting and inspiring, so, even for purely selfish reasons, I'll always keep that going! [Laughs.] I learn a lot every time!
PC: You're one of the most exciting rising stars we have today, Ben - all my best luck with FIND THE FUNNY, ABRAHAM LINCOLN and everything else you have coming up!
BW: Thanks so much, Pat - and, thanks for keeping people excited about theatre and good stories and new, young artists. What you guys do over there is so important and I really couldn't appreciate your support more. Bye bye.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro