Benjamin Bratt – STAR
Q) Did you pull from the personas of any real life but notorious talent agents to help you get into the head space of, I think I’m pronouncing his name right, Jahil’s head space?
Benjamin: Jahil Rivera. I did in fact. I pulled directly from Lee Daniels’ early life, himself. Yes that for me was the big draw in taking this role on. I had worked with Lee back in 2004 when he produced the film called The Woodsman and of course, having worked with him on that and then following his body of work over the course of the years, he’s clearly someone who enjoys the role of provocateur. When he called me to talk about the world he wanted to create, it all sounded fascinating to me, but the number one thing that pulled me in was that on some level he designed Jahil Rivera as a reflection of himself of when he was a younger man and working in Los Angeles as an account manager to actors. The reason that fascinated me was that obviously Lee is nothing if not provocative in both personality and in the subject matter he likes to explore. He’s also someone who obviously on record has had his various issues with substance abuse and personal behavior that has maybe at times derailed his personal plan for himself. I liked that he was going to explore that with this character, so when Star begins, we come upon a guy who is down on his luck, had a moment of fame likely back in the late ’90s and has been waiting for the right time and the right star to hitch his wagon to to try to extend that ladder to success and fame once again.
Q) This is a music world where the setting is. Do you see parallels with the Hollywood? Do you see the same similar struggles? Can you relate?
Benjamin: I don’t have enough familiarity with the music industry to make a fair comparison between it and some of the television industry. By all accounts, the music industry is far more cut-throat. Thus, making it a perfect setting for a show like this. I think this show is as much an exploration of the overwhelming ambition it takes to become rich and famous as it is an indictment of it. If you compare Empire, which was also, of course, a Lee Daniels show, that show on some level is a reflection of the fabulous life he leads now in the lap of real fame and fortune. Star, on the other hand, is more of a reflection of the struggle that he emerged from and the aspirations and hopes you have for yourself, whatever your flaws are, whatever’s holding you back in trying to get there. I think what people are going to find, audiences and fans of Empire are going to find, they share a kind of musical DNA and also an examination of the dysfunction of families, albeit this one is not a family of blood. But really the comparisons end there as Lee really is not afraid of rather adventurously and courageously leans on current hot-button issues to serve as a springboard into the narrative to his shows, in particular, these episodes.
Q) Were there any difficulties trying to get into that character, and what can we expect, what can viewers expect from you for your character?
Benjamin: Stepping into the skin of someone like Jahil Rivera is an opportunity to expand beyond, as an actor, an opportunity to expand beyond what typically I’m offered in a television forum. The good news for me as an artist was that Lee was quite familiar with my work in the independent film world, and that includes films like Piñero or a film I produced with my brother, La Mission, or The Woodsman as I noted earlier that I worked on with him—all films which afforded me an opportunity to really act, to really transform into something from quite different than what most TV audiences expect of me. With that, Lee has given me a gift, really, on a network television show to visit parts of personality and things that are very different from my own that are by far and away much more challenging to portray because they’re so far removed from what I am. With that said, Lee is the inspiration for the character and obviously a natural touchstone for me to continually go back to. It’s been not just a challenge but kind of inspiration really to do this because rather than feel pressure to exact a performance in the form of the creator of the show, I feel inspired and excited at the challenges put before me.
Q) When it comes to the entertainment industry, whether it’s music or film or TV, it always seems nowadays that people want to become famous overnight. What do you think about that idea of not having to put in the work, maybe putting a YouTube video out there or starting a reality TV show and then expecting something big out of that? How do you feel about that as somebody that’s been in the industry for so long?
Benjamin: Yes, I find it a little troubling, and I know it’s gross generalization to put it this way, but a lot of young folks I talk to, and especially folks I bumped into in public who express a desire to obtain fame and fortune, they want that as an end result as though that’s a profession, as though that’s something to seek out and to enjoy based on nothing other than the pursuit of it itself. What I always reflect back on them is what I do wasn’t really taken on with that as an agenda. I see what I do for the craft that it is. I come from a working class background. I come from a couple of parents who always expressed that a strong work ethic is what you need to succeed in life, no matter what it was you wanted to do. I approached this profession from a very working-like point-of-view as a result, kind of like building a house where you have to lay a foundation first and then build upon that before you put the roof on, before you
top essentially. What I try to reinforce with young folks when they come up to me and they say they’re seeking fame and fortune, I try to spin it back on them and point out, well beyond that, what inspires you? What is it you want to do with yourself, in this world? What kind of positivity do you want to bring to the world? Whatever that is, it’s not going to come easy. It takes hard work. It takes dedication. It takes self-discipline, and it takes a certain degree of self-respect and respect of others where you bring the positivity to the world and not just seeking out something that’s empty and unfulfilling.
Q) With Empire and you guys following it and that show being so successful, do you feel any pressure to be a successful or tell a story as well as that show does? Can you talk a little bit about that?
Benjamin: Yes, you know, it’s a funny question about pressure because the truth is I don’t really take that pressure on; it’s not my job. The tone of the show, the flavor of it, the direction it’s going in, the characters that exist in it, none of that ultimately is my concern because it’s not my responsibility. Actually, let me correct that. It is of concern, but it’s not my responsibility, it’s essentially out of my hands. I have to really focus on that task at hand which is to make this character feel real, make him feel believable. The good news is with Lee Daniels, he puts his thumb on everything. Although he’s not running the writers room, his stamp, his brand is on everything. I told him that we need to clone him. We actually need at least four more of him because he’s spread so thin. He’s in the editing room. He’s in the writer’s room. He’s dealing with the network. He’s talking to the actors, and he’s also doing that on Empire to some degree still, too. I think that’s the overall challenge. I wouldn’t necessarily count it as pressure from an actor’s point of view, but I think the collective understanding is that you want to maintain quality that it takes his presence to keep that quality level up, and for now, we’re grateful for his presence. He has other projects coming up, film projects, etc. Who knows? We’re coming out tonight. We’re excited about the momentum we feel behind us. We get the sense from people just approaching us publicly, and I’m talking about the collective of us actors who are on the show. It feels like people are very excited about what’s coming out and looking forward to checking out another Lee Daniels joint.
Q) Then, speaking of what’s coming up, that’s one heck of a greeting that Queen Latifah’s character gives you the first time you guys see each other after a while. Can you talk a little bit about working with her and is there anything that you can tease about your two characters’ history?
Benjamin: Yes, aside from Lee Daniels, the presence of Queen Latifah in the show was the main reason I took it on. You want to be surrounded by good people, and I couldn’t have more respect and admiration for an artist than I do for her. She’s the type, I call her “Midas” to her face because anything she’s ever touched, she turns to gold. I don’t mean that necessarily in a commercially successful way, I mean that in a way where she approaches everything with integrity and with a sensibility of bringing artistic truth to it. So, whether she’s cut albums or been in films that have been nominated for Academy Awards, or been in half-hour comedies, or hosting her own talk show, she knows how to succeed. Part of that is brought to bear by her natural charisma and charm, and of course, talent. There’s no denying her inherent grace and gravitas that’s just within her. There’s a kind of natural spokesman there that I love working off. I feel completely protected in her presence, and artist to artist you need that sense of safety when you’re working, especially when you’re doing scenes like we’re doing, where we’re antagonistic towards one another. Yes, so those are some of my favorite days on set. A little bit of a tease is that as episodes begin to unfold, we discover that, yes, as we know from the pilot, that Jahil was a manager to her and her friend, Mary, and they had a record that made it onto the charts. But they might have a bit of personal history there too that underlies and continues to antagonize their current contemporary relationship. Are there feelings still there? We don’t know. There could be. Those are some of the layers we’ll be peeling back.
Q) I just wanted to ask, you are on a wonderful show, surrounded by people of color, stars like Queen Latifah, to newcomers as well, and now we are seeing more of that mainstream shows on FOX and other networks, from Empire to several other shows where people of color and their stories are being told in mainstream with them as the main characters, and it’s not just targeted to particular audience, it’s for everyone. You’ve been in the industry for so long, you’ve seen so much. How do you feel about that? What do you think is causing that? Is it good? Does more need to happen? What’s your thoughts on that from your experience in working on this show?
Benjamin: It’s an exciting time because I think that the industry is finally catching up with the reality of the real diversity that exists within our country. I have always cited early pioneers of blind casting, folks like Dick Wolf who gave me one of my first jobs, to Shonda Rhimes, and now of course, Lee Daniels who populate the worlds of their programming as they see the world itself and as a reflection for what it really is. I was born and raised in San Francisco, California, a child of the ’60s, ’70s, and my fond remembrance of that city was that it was cosmopolitan, and it was eclectic, and it was ethnically and culturally mixed. But, when I got into the business, I found none of that. The good news, to your question is that yes, not just in the independence sphere but also on the major networks, more and more programming is reflecting the reality that in fact, America, the United States of America, is now and always has been strong and incredible and full of potential because of what it is, which is a culturally diverse and remarkable tapestry of different cultural influences from around the world.
Q) Being in the industry, your experience, what would your message be or suggestion be to young actors and young storytellers to take people of color and ethnicity to take advantage of this time? What would your suggestion be?
Benjamin: I would say that everyone has a story, and the key to telling a story on a national or international level is to find the universality in the connective tissue really that really makes all of us human beings the same. That’s one thing that Lee has really been successful at. In Star, he reflects a world he knows well, a world that is a reflection of our communities where some of the social ills not only influence the way we grow up but some of the choices we make for our future, and that holds true for the world of Star. We have some characters that come from the world of poverty and child abuse, or from the dilapidated foster care system, or there’s gun violence, gender politics at work, substance abuse, you name it. While it does seem like that would be at times merely used as a way to dramatize different scenarios, it’s also a reflection of what Lee knows, the world that Lee knows well. On some level he seeks to make it authentic and dramatize it at the same time. That’s what I think people are going to respond to. This show is not necessarily for everyone. Some of these things are hard to look at and yet, the way he depicts it, the starkness that really exists in real life and then juxtaposes it with the hopefulness and the inspirational aspects of music. I think he’s created something totally unique and really compelling to watch.
Q)I want to ask, by doing the show, in some way it makes you think about the struggles you had when you decided to pursue an acting career and think about also how much you have accomplished these days.
Benjamin: You mean in terms of the struggle as represented by these three young ladies in trying to make a go of things? Is that the question? It’s funny because, and I don’t want this to come out the wrong way, but I really never felt struggle when I first decided to become an actor, not initially. When I was in college and was working on my BFA in theater and then went on to graduate school to get my Masters in theater, it was almost an incubator of sorts where there was no external pressure and no environmental pressure or predetermined boxes that I had to sit in. In particular, at grad school, at the American Conservatory Theater, in their professional company they had a policy of blind casting where you could see a production of A Christmas Carol as an example where Tiny Tim was played by an Asian boy, his father was white, his mother was black, and nothing was made of it. It was just the best actor for the job, and so in a way I was spoiled, in that way. In the face of some of my early successes and encouragement from professors, that hey, this is something you can actually do, I didn’t have to consider that there was any kind of racial or cultural roadblocks in my way on my way to working. It wasn’t until I got to Los Angeles for the first time, and now this is dating myself, back in the late ’80s that I realized, oh, wait a second, the industry isn’t really like that. They want to put you into a specific category right away, and I see that they’re putting me into boxes that I’m not necessarily familiar with but I guess, if that means I’m going to work, I’ll do it. I never lacked for work. I was always very fortunate to work from the moment I got to Los Angeles. I haven’t stopped working. I would say it took me a minute to realize, wait a second, the work I’m being offered is not what everyone else is getting offered. They see me a certain way that isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of who I am. If you’re brown-skinned, they want you to have a Spanish accent or they want you to have a Hispanic surname. I don’t have either of those. I wasn’t raised that way. My mother’s from Peru, and I’m proudly Latin American. I recognized my indigenous heritage, but I’m just as proud of my paternal side of the family which is German and English. I’m just who I am. The identity politics, the racial qualifications that one needs to ascribe themselves or is compelled to feel like they need to ascribe themselves when they get to the industry was a little shocking for me, but you learn to roll with it. Thankfully that’s all changing.
Q) There’s a lot of new talent, a lot of fresh faces in this series. I want to know, will we hear you sing, what attracted you to this project, and what, if anything, surprised you.
Benjamin: All right, here’s my issue. This is my issue and the particular bone I have to pick with Lee is that he has put me in a cast almost entirely comprised of people who can not only sing but who can sing professionally, from Brittany and Jude to Ryan, the three girls who comprise the trio, to Queen to Quincy Brown, to Tyrese Gibson, to Lenny Kravitz, they can all sing. They can all blow, and I’m jealous because I can’t, I can’t hold a note. That’s the honest to God truth. I’m hoping—I don’t know if it’s going to take, what’s that computer program where it holds your note in tune? I don’t know if it’s going to take some auto-tune or what, but I’m hoping he’s going to give me a shot to embarrass myself because therein lies the challenge. That’s one of the reasons I took on the show, or at least let me get a dance number.
Q) What surprised you about the young people you had a chance to work with, this group of amazing talented newcomers?
Benjamin: The self-possession they have. I reflect back on when I first started in the professional world when I was in my early 20s, and I was very green. These girls have a certain degree of naivety as well, kind of a wide-eyed, babes in the woods kind of thing when we first shot the pilot a year ago. But I have to tell you, you compare that to who they are now, and this is even prior to the show premiering tonight. We’re now eight episodes in, and they’re like solid veterans. The reason why is not only do they put in their 12-hour shooting days, they are then moving on to the dance studio and working on the choreography for the various dance numbers that occur in every episode. Then, whatever spare time they have left, they actually go into the studio to learn and record the songs that they’re required to sing. They’re a remarkably talented group of girls, and now because of all the hard work that they put in over the last few months, it was a kind of conservatory-like setting that has now fueled them and prepared them for not only the work that they do every week but for what awaits them in a really public way.
Q) Watching the premiere, Jahil had quite an introduction to Star. What can you tell us about his dynamic with the three girls moving forward?
Benjamin: So, as Lee has explained it to me, Jahil is obsessed with Star, and in particular because she is, as we discover in the pilot, the daughter of Mary who was Carlotta’s partner in the duo that he had some early success with. That’s one of the aspects, one of the reasons why he’s obsessed. But he’s also obsessed because of her talent. He recognizes immediately that she is unique and that she is someone that can quickly ascend to the fame and fortune that he always aspired to have for himself. There’s clearly a sexual attraction between them, which, given their age differences isn’t necessarily “on” as they say. That’s a very Lee Daniels construct too. As I mentioned earlier. Lee’s aim and goal is to provoke as much as it is to entertain because out of the provocation, to his way of thinking comes the drama, and he’s not wrong. What we’ll see unfold over the course of episodes is the development of this obsession that Jahil has towards Star and what that really means in terms of his relative disinterest to the other girls.
Q) I want to ask you, is this story has a protagonist with a difficult childhood that she’s looking out for her future and a story about identity, about roots. I want to ask you that it seems to me like Blood In, Blood Out but without Vatos Locos?
Benjamin: Yes, I don’t really see the parallel, and I apologize. Obviously that’s a film I’m quite proud of. I don’t really see the parallel because the three protagonists in that show didn’t really have a mentor of sorts. I guess one of them did. That said, Lee is very fond of focusing on the dysfunction of the human condition, in particular in this sense, the dysfunctionality of what seems to be a hodgepodge family. Empire, he focuses on a dysfunctional family that’s made of blood, and in the face of fame. This is the opposite of that. You have Carlotta who is the kind of godmother to these girls who clearly has a history with Jahil, and Jahil is a kind of perverse uncle/older brother mentor and these girls who are essentially sisters in the struggle to succeed with their ambition and desire for fame and fortune. They’re unique personalities. The differences between them all and their histories, their respective histories just leave a lot of potholes in the road, and you’re going to step in them. There are going to be bumps along the way, and that’s where the drama’s going to come out of. The good news is a show like this, for as much drama and even melodrama that emerges, at times is hard to watch. The music is always what brings it back around. The music clearly emerges as a main character of the show, and just as it has been historically throughout mankind and for cultures around the world, music is always a source of inspiration and perhaps even a conduit to spiritual balance. That’s one thing that Lee’s always interested in doing, is sort of examining the difference between the sacred and the profane, and he does it in this show just as he has in some of his films.