Denée Benton starred in Lifetime’s “UnReal” over the summer and now takes the lead in Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. Below are highlights from my interview with Ms. Benton. Read the full article published in Vanity Fair.
There seems to be two approaches to diverse casting and they come from opposite vantage points. In the first, an actor’s race is essential to her character (like Ruby in “UnReal”) and in the second, an actor’s race is incidental (like Natasha in The Great Comet). Now that you’ve done both in the past year, which type of role speaks to you more as an actress?
The way that this year happened is my dream for the industry in general. To tell a story that is so close to my own and then tell a story that is completely different from my own but that I connect to so strongly. I appreciate the freedom to do both. As far as the diversity question is concerned, I think that white actors have been able to do that for a very long time, to be able to tell stories that are completely written for them and also get to play a trans woman in the next big film. To play someone who shares your ethnic background and your belief system and then to play someone who is from the opposite side of the world. That is the ultimate crux of what diversity means. That’s an opportunity that’s been afforded to straight white men – they’ve have the ability to transform as well as play themselves.
How important is it for a character to be played by an actor with the same background?
Acting is so much about your imagination. When I was a little girl, I wanted to be Pocahontas and Cinderella and the Big Bad Wolf. Like with Natasha – I am by no means a 19th century Russian aristocrat, but I also completely understand Natasha in a different way, her youthful zest for life, her optimism that everything is going to be incredible. When I first heard her big aria, I loved her. I think our essences are very similar. That’s how people get cast; there’s a similar essence between people that’s much deeper and richer than your ethnic DNA. Because the fact of the matter is, as much as I’m not Russian, none of my white cast members are Russian either. It’s just not quite as shocking as looking different. So these conversations happen and they’re beautiful and important, but they’re more about a physical make up and whether that detaches an audience from a story or not.
So with the character Natasha, there’s nothing about her Russian experience that you can’t access from rehearsal or research.
Yeah, I think so. I know War and Peace is such a huge part of Russian history and literature, but it really is a story of archetypes of people making terrible and wonderful decisions. And when stories are that universal, I think everyone should have access to telling them.
In recent years, some notable black actors have played roles on Broadway that are almost always filled by white actors, like Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible, Forest Whitaker in Eugene O’Neill’s Hughie, Taye Diggs in Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Norm Lewis in The Phantom of the Opera. Do you feel your casting as Natasha reflects a similar broader thinking among directors?
Yeah, Rachel is an incredible director. Her world of creation is far less commercial. She didn’t start in the Broadway world or a world where money really matters. She came to this with a broader and freer perspective. My final callback for Natasha was amazing: there was an Asian girl, a Hispanic girl, a white girl and we all had big wide eyes and clearly connected to this character. I think it’s a two-fold thing: allowing roles to be open but every role doesn’t allow for that, and there needs to be more stories that have more room.
Which starts with more writers…
Exactly. Writers, and producers putting money behind those writers. In the film industry, I’m always amazed at how many films there are telling incredibly diverse stories, but if they don’t get the marketing dollars behind them, we have no idea that it exists, and we have an Oscars-so-white situation. And it’s not because those creators don’t exist, it’s the funding behind them, and people deciding that we are marketable enough to have audience members. I think it’s happening, slowly but surely.
In staging an immersive show like this, how does improvisation factor in?
You’ll see at the beginning of the show, everyone comes out and some people get perogies. There we have freedom to be ourselves. But improvisational as it may seem, our paths are pretty clearly set simply for safety reasons. Like you’re singing and also giving someone a gentle pat so you can get across. But it’s cool, you can see the look in everyone’s eyes, like what have we gotten ourselves into! But it’s also very humbling, like you can feel you gave the best performance of your life, and someone’s looking at you like this [makes a bored face], and it’s like, I see you! Or they give you so much love and you feel bolstered by that.
Is there a particular scene that makes you feel most connected to the show?
I think “No One Else” is the song that really locks me in. The lighting design is breathtaking. It’s all these little lightbulbs that look like a sea of stars. And Balaga – it’s a huge chaotic dance number. You get to toast everyone and toast each other. The group of artists on stage is just incredible to me: the actress who plays Princess Mary has her PhD in performance studies, and the actor who plays Balaga has a Masters in composition. That’s the number where I think we’re doing something really awesome. You can’t give it anything less than all of your energy.
photo credit: Chad Batka