BWW Interview: Actor Bennett Saltzman Talks MIDSUMMER, Group rep and Honing His Craft
Actor Bennett Saltzman is a new member of Group rep in NoHo, but has already played two leads in a row in the last two plays. He has been critically and publically praised for Lost in Yonkers and the current Midsummer Night's Dream. Saltzman talks about his young past and about his love for his craft.
Tell us about yourself. Where you were born and grew up and how your love of theatre began.
I was born and raised in Chicago, well, this suburb forty minutes outside of Chicago called Buffalo Grove, but I went into the city almost every weekend so I think I can say I'm from Chicago. From the beginning I wanted to be a Power Ranger so that's kind of where I caught "the bug." I started doing Karate and Fencing at an early age, but my family's a very musical family so I did a lot of singing and dancing growing up. I really liked to dance at Bar Mitzvahs. I would win all the prizes. I did ballet and jazz for ten years until I was about sixteen. Anyhow, I was always really "into comedy" so I'd go downtown every weekend to take improv classes at The Second City and see the shows. I just liked entertaining. I wanted to be an actor early on and my Mom told me I could try after my Bar Mitzvah. I had a small role in A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas when I was fifteen, but school was always very important.
So, I went to USC to study theater and really started digging into acting there. Eventually, in my junior year. I studied Shakespeare abroad in London at the British American Drama Academy. It was the first time I'd really tackled the guy, I'd kinda been hiding from him but I quickly learned how much I loved it. Then back to USC, graduate and here we are. Kind of that classic theater kid upbringing dipping my toes in everything. Besides that I guess I really like American history? Comic books? Greek mythology? I don't know.
Did you feel prepared for the real world of acting when you graduated from USC? How did the program prepare you?
Between USC and BADA I definitely feel more prepared for the "real world" than had I not gone to school, although I may not have realized it at the time. There was a lot of times in school where I didn't understand the point of all the classes: the exercises were ridiculous and it didn't feel like I was getting any better especially when I could sleep walk through a scene and still be told I did a decent job even when I knew I didn't. But I think the point was to find out what techniques and methods worked best for you and to be able to make yourself put in the effort. You got to learn who you are and how you work and that's what the classes were for. Bit of a ramble-y answer but short version, yes, college did actually prepare me. Also USC offers fun and interesting things that you wouldn't normally get to try like stand-up and voiceover and writing and producing.
What were your challenges in Lost in Yonkers, your very first play for Group rep?
I think the biggest challenge of being in Lost in Yonkers was that, short of one thing in high school, it was the first professional acting gig I'd ever had, ever. I had to figure out how everything worked and how to live a balanced life as a professional actor really quickly. I felt very in over my head. I'd never done an eight week run before, school plays only run one weekend! I think that was the biggest learning curve that I'm still figuring out, how to sustain a role for months and keep it fresh. It's a great challenge, I love it, I feel like an adult tackling it.
Tell us about Midsummer, how it is different from other productions and the challenges of playing Puck.
We have a very "different" take on this production of Midsummer. It's not different in that we are being edgy or wacky for the sake of shock value, but that we are grounding this play in a certain reality. No matter how cooky the characters and antics get, these are real people, with real thoughts, feelings, values, and responsibilities. Even the fairies. That's been the biggest challenge; making Puck a "real person." He is a boy, who has a job in serving and entertaining his king. He doesn't fully understand his responsibilities or the consequences of his actions but over the course of what occurs throughout the play he realizes that all actions have weight to them. Finding a way to convey that and not slipping into the classic "Pucky" tropes, yet to still be the lovable "Merry Wanderer" has been an exceptional challenge. I guess the audience determines if I succeeded.
Is this your first Shakespeare play? Do you think Shakespeare is more difficult to play in today's world than when it was written?
This is my second Shakespeare show. Last year at USC I got to play Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet and I loved absolutely every second of it. Between the sword fights and the explosive language, it's one of those "roles of a lifetime." I probably think about that production at least once a week. They had me bouncing off the walls and in constant motion, it was just so much fun. And no, I don't think Shakespeare is more difficult to portray today. Once you get through the language barrier you're just open to this huge range of emotions. Nothing is really off limits and any questions you have are answered in the text. The meter really does tell you what you are supposed to be feeling and when; you just need to know how to look for it. Plus, and this is my favorite part, you truly have the freedom to move and play around with Shakespeare, each show lends itself to being very visual and active. I find it very freeing to be in a Shakespearian play, especially compared to your classic "family room" play. Shakespeare is very freeing for an actor.
What is your favorite play of all time?
My favorite play has got to be Columbinus by Stephan Karam and PJ Paparelli. Having read it, seen it, and been in it... It's an explosive and powerful show that dissects the columbine massacre. The first act is about eight "breakfast club" stereotypical teenagers, (Jock, Faith, AP, Freak, Loner, Rebel, Perfect) and the troubles each face and how there's more to them then the box they fit in. In act two you watch as Freak and Loner go down a darker and darker path and "become" Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, eventually committing themselves to the massacre. A recent third act deals with the aftermath and how it affected the community and America. It's just a phenomenal show that truly nails the sense of aimlessness and anger that you experience at that age, and the terrible consequence of letting that darkness take over. As the number of mass shootings increases I wonder more and more if you can still put this show on today. It is told from the perspective of the killers; it DOES humanize them, though the third act shows how what they did was unforgivable... I don't know. Seven years later ... and it still sits with me more than any other show. That's a powerful and meaningful piece of theater.
Do you have a favorite playwright?
Right now I've been reading a lot of Sam Shepard. I love how raw his plays are. His characters love each other, but the intensity of it makes them claw their eyes out. I just relate to his style of writing immensely, and try to incorporate it in my own work. Also he had a crazy rock and roll life.
What roles would you like to play?
Oh gosh. well the classic answer is Hamlet, but if we're going to be honest with ourselves... Frankenfurter in The Rocky Horror Show. That show is a freaking rock concert live and he is just raw sex and it looks like so much fun. On a more serious note... Wesley in Curse of the Starving Class by Sam Shepard. Also, and I know this will sound ridiculous, but when I'm older I really want to play Vladimir in Waiting for Godot. We did scenes from it my senior year of college and that play is a lot funnier and more relatable than a high school English class would let on.
Do you have an agent or manager?
I'm currently with Littman Talent Group and PureTalent Management. I'm currently just auditioning and trying to get my foot in the door, looking forward for things to pick up. Also trying to make fun films with my friends. Classic actor stuff.
Tell us a bit about being a member of Group rep and what it means to you.
The Group Rep has become like a second little home to me post grad. The company offers great opportunities and it has been amazing to become a part of a network of experienced actors so eager to take me under their wing, give me their wisdom, and help me out. I really appreciate everything they've done for me.
Any long range plans?
I may pursue an MA in Theatre if that's how my life gets going, but currently I have a very youthful look and type and I want to take advantage of that while I still can.
Anything you'd like to add that we didn't discuss?
I normally don't rant and ramble and wax philosophic about my opinions like this. Yes, it's cool that I've done two shows at the Group Rep, but ask anyone my age in this craft and you'll find an absolute well of creativity and intelligence. I've got friends I never see because they're constantly writing, directing, and working and I'm truly inspired by them and envious of their work ethic. Though I'd never say that to their face because that would be super lame.
You have until December 31 to see this amazing young talent in Midsummer Night's Dream at Group rep in NoHo. Don't miss him!