When we caught up with Los Angeles based actor, Benjamin Mathes, we wanted to know what it’s been like for him, leaving a secure path to carve his own, and we asked him to tell us about his evolution as an actor and lessons he’s learned in the process.
Here’s the problem with dreams…one day, early or later in life, we realize our dream, and this is a problem—a big problem. See, dreams are great as long as we never realize what our dream actually is, as long as we can float through life and convince ourselves that dreams are for dreamers, and dreamers have no place here in the real world. As long as we believe that, we’ll be fine. But, as soon as the dream is realized, as soon as we allow the fullness of our imagination to take control, we recognize just how big that dream is and how impossible it would be to actually achieve it. Then, like an ant hill in a thunderstorm, we feel small and insignificant in comparison, so why even try? Why keep going? It’ll never happen. There’s no way. Just stop.
You want to know what sucks…? I was five when I realized my dream. Yeah, five. What a great way to start life—with a dream….silly kid.
When Mrs. Brotherton needed three volunteers to play the third, fourth, and tenth ”little indian” in the kindergarten class Thanksgiving Day skit, I jumped up to be all of them. “No. Don’ be a role hog, Benjamin.” But it was like this inner world began to burn in me. There was a fire in my gut that wouldn’t stop burning unless I was every “little indian.” I could do it, dammit, and I could do it better than Heather Hatfield.
I’m an actor.
I can’t help it.
It hurts not to be one.
This is where it began, and between kindergarten and high school I played three trees, two rocks, two Santa Clauses, and a spider.
And still it burned, this dream.
The Puberty Of My Art
I don’t think I realized the enormity of my dream until my voice started to change. I loved high school; it’s where my dream upgraded from playful, unabashed hope to a more structured if-then (as in, ‘if you want to be an actor, then you have to do it like this’) kind of passion. Looking back, I know that shift was a downgrade…but at the time, it felt mature—like late nights at Waffle House, smoking, and kissing.
Despite my new structured approach to dreaming, I learned to love the theatre: the smell of the wood, the heat of the lights, the taste of the make-up, the rush of the applause, the power, the twelve-hour rehearsals, even the notes, the lead roles, and the awards. It was here that I cried; I laughed; I loved; I fought; I felt my first boob (hers not mine), and I grew up.
I met Linda Wise, my high school teacher, and Hylan Scott, a mentor friend. Linda showed me what it meant to be an artist. She demanded respect for the work, and I respected her demands. Hylan opened my eyes to artistic freedom. He was a working actor, and I was enthralled by the life he seemed to live. That life was my dream—to be a professional actor.
But my adolescent fear took hold. I told myself that I could never be that good, I could never do that. That dream was too big. I’m fine right here, where I can do it right. Where I can do theatre the way it was supposed to be done: here in high school. That’s enough. No need to want more.
If only I could reduce my dream to something smaller, then I could achieve it–silly kid.
There it was. I had discovered the true path to fulfillment! Make it smaller. Expect less. Hope for less. Convince myself that being actor is stupid, childish, and unreasonable. Who needs all that attention? Those people are weird; I mean, have you seen what goes on in Hollywood? I was very reasonable, and reasonable people are good at finding reasons not to do something, so despite being recruited to some of the most prestigious acting schools in the country, I decided to go the traditional route. I went to the State University. I know! I’ll be a teacher! Something normal. Something reasonable. Something secure. I can do that. Reduce the world, and increase my significance within it! Big fish/small pond sounds good to me. Acting was just a high school thing. I’m a grown up now. Time to move on. Right?
It still burned.
So, to put a little water on the fire, I did a musical at the local community theatre.
I had one line, “me, sir, me!”
The director, Tom Coleman, asked me to stay after rehearsal. He liked the way I did my line and offered me my first, paying, professional acting job. For two years, I toured around rural Georgia playing Rumpelstiltskin for elementary school kids, and I had the time of my life. I must have signed more than 1,000 Rumpelstiltskin autographs–eat your heart out, Brad Pitt.
Then one night after a show, the fire in my belly started to burn to the surface. I began talking to Tom about what I thought acting was and how I approached it and why it was important to me. He stopped me and said he would pay me to teach what I was mouthing off about, if I was serious. And there I was, eighteen years old, touring as an actor, creating a class and teaching a way of working that I was figuring out as I went (some things I still use today), and beginning to regrow the dream.
S*** Or Get Off The Pot
Some say I did it for a girl…of course I did.
I left my fairy tale tour and my small class, and I went to finally ‘study’ my dream. I was accepted into a prestigious conservatory to study acting. Dreams and behavior were beginning to align.
I thrived in my studies, met creative people, wrote music, had my heart-broken (by the girl!) and rediscovered my dream in its full potential. It was dangerous…very dangerous…it’s dangerous because I was surrounded by people who had reduced the size of their dreams, and when in my third year, CBS called and offered me a role on the soap opera, “As The World Turns,” those people worked their hardest to pull me back down where I belonged. I was the crab trying to get out of the box, and they had their pinchers in me, pulling me back—“If we can’t, you can’t!”
Friends spoke badly about me, lied about me, and ignored me. Teachers had meetings and argued about whether I should be punished for accepting the role–even the Dean had a meeting with me. I remember the university had a giant event to celebrate my first episode…none of my actor friends showed up, just a few higher-ups and random people who didn’t know me.
I felt alone…but I wasn’t.
Before I knew it, my instructors requested individual meetings with me to offer their support and to let me know they were sorry I ever had to defend a success. They encouraged me to follow it and go to New York City before I finished the four years of training.
So I did.
I followed the show to the city.
The dream was big, too big. I had to do something to shrink it, and I had to do it quickly.
A Bite of the Apple
As soon as I got to New York, I began making my rounds to different agents. Because of the soap opera, I was the new kid on the block, and everyone wanted to meet me—to see what I could do for them.
I learned very quickly that there are different levels of agencies: small, medium, and large. In general, the bigger the agent, the more powerful, and the more opportunities they could create for me.
It came down to two agencies: a small one and a large one.
The small one was a two-person, one room operation. Good people, blue-collar, lots of phone calls, and a water fountain.
The second one was in a huge office off of Fifth Avenue, with plenty of suits, receptionists, security checks, a beautiful elevator, and they offered me a drink every time I was in the office.
Clearly, the large agency was more in line with the size of my dream, but they were so big, I convinced myself that, like my dream, they were too big for me. I came up with every imaginable reason why I shouldn’t sign with them—I’ll get lost; they’ll be too cut-throat; the office is so far from my apartment; the views are too good from their high rise…again, I was very reasonable, and reasonable people will always find reasons not to do things.
So, I signed with the smaller agency.
I stapled my own headshots and resumes, walked five flights of stairs, and had to get my own water when I got there.
They worked very hard for me, and though I was able to work in theatre in New York and around the country, I was never able to get into huge Broadway auditions or in for major films.
But that was ok. After all, I didn’t want things to get out of control…didn’t want things to get too big.
I remember “going to producers” (which is what we call the second or third round, or in this case, the fourth round of auditions) for an unknown HBO pilot called “Entourage.” I was reading for the lead role, some hotshot actor who navigates the ins-and-outs of Hollywood with his entourage, and they liked me. My agents called and told me to keep up the good work; HBO was excited about me, and this could be a great way to start a career in New York—HBO even had me clear my schedule for a possible cast-bonding trip to Vegas.
I was getting excited.
But reasonable people aren’t supposed to get excited. If we get excited, we may be let down, and could hurt. Better to prepare for failure. I worked hard to convince myself I didn’t really have enough television experience; they would probably find someone in Los Angeles with a more impressive resume and more powerful agent; I didn’t really want to have to deal with moving to Los Angeles, and I wasn’t good looking enough; I was too young, or I wasn’t in shape enough to play this role. And besides, that show would probably never get picked up anyway…
That way of thinking affected my auditions. On my last read for “Entourage,” the producers and casting directors asked me if I was ‘ok’…The feedback they gave my agent was something like…” Yea, he’s great, but something was missing in his last read. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
At the time I didn’t know it, but I was very good at sabotaging myself…very reasonable.
Head West Young Man
There was only one place to retreat after I reduced my dream: graduate school.
Of course, that’s not what I told myself. I told myself my dream was just changing, not being reduced. Now, I wanted to be a professor of acting. Settle down in some cute college town, get a steady income, work within the system, and get a real taste of middle class crack—security. Silly kid.
Two and a half years into my time in New York City, I decided to go to grad school and get an MFA in Acting. Sure, they’d train me to be an actor, but I also needed that degree if I ever wanted to settle down into the new version of my dream. I chose a school in Southern California with a good reputation for training actors, and one which would allow me to teach. I turned down a school that had a much better reputation for training actors, but wouldn’t allow me to teach.
I was awful in school…just wanted it to be over. Give me my piece of paper and let me move on–not the best attitude, and it blinded me to many opportunities and lessons. I was not an artist—quit treating me like one.
Try as I might, I couldn’t escape the flames of acting, and upon graduation, a very powerful manager (as opposed to agent) decided she wanted to represent me. I rolled my inner-eye at the thought of being an actor again and at living under the enormity of that dream. But, I convinced myself that getting a few small roles would make me a more marketable teacher.
I’ll act so I can teach. My manager wasn’t on the same page.
She used to tell me that being an actor was like being an athlete, and she was right. She worked me. She had me in rooms I believed were above my pay scale. I was meeting with agents, lawyers, and producers—people who made Hollywood run. I was auditioning for lead roles on every show that’s on TV—from “Glee” to “Law and Order LA,” you name it; I read for it…and I sabotaged myself all along the way.
I did book a few things. If you saw the movie, “City Island,” there I am, working with Alan Arkin and Andy Garcia. It’s a great film…go see it. If you’ve seen Chris Rock’s, “Death At A Funeral,” I had a hand in the development of that film and got to work with Chris Rock–also worth the watch. But mostly, I spent my time defending my limitations. I argued with my manager, telling her she expected too much from me; I was new to LA. Why wasn’t I reading for smaller roles? I was tired of driving…
I learned that when you defend your limitations, they become yours–you get to keep them.
I separated from my manager and decided to go it alone.
The big wake up call came from my wife (go figure).
It didn’t take long before I was teaching at a university, at a studio in LA, and I had lots of private clients. I was making pretty good money as a teacher, and I remember saying to my wife, “I’m doing exactly what I said I would do—teaching!” to which she replied, “Then you should have said you would be acting!”
Like a ton of bricks, my self-imposed-dream-reduction hit me across the face. Why didn’t I do that? I used to —I used to tell people I was going to be the greatest actor in the world. I used to call myself an artist. Now I was just avoiding the difficult. I was hiding out in the “great in between,” where there is no risk of failure and no promise of success. I had reduced my dream to something achievable… and I had achieved it.
Don’t Be Scared To Turn On A Dime
“Don’t be scared to turn on a dime.” My dad told me that one day, and so did my mom, but I bet neither remember it. I guess I never realized I could turn on a dime–my own dime.
You can change the way you see your place in the world, and you can regain the significance lost when you realized the scope of your dreams.
I found a teacher, Stuart Rogers, who has changed the way I see my art. He taught me that art isn’t a mystical thing we roll our eyes at like the new-aged section of Barnes and Noble. Art is defined by the amount of ourselves we bring to any process. It doesn’t matter what you do, if you put all of yourself into the process, it’s an art.
That was it! I never brought all of myself. I was always leaving something in the reserve tank, playing it safe and hoping not to mess up, trying to do things right, and not having the courage to do things wrong.
I decided to surrender to my dreams and my abilities, to allow for possibilities and for greatness, and to follow everything that happens as a result. Sounds like some cheesy “Oprah” episode, but it’s the way I approach my acting, and I guess its silly to assume the way we approach our art is different from the way we approach our lives—it’s the same brain, last I checked.
“So turn on a dime, son. Stop being so reasonable. Go to bed on empty. Leave nothing in the reserve tank. You can’t be an artist if you’re trying to get things right. And take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously…”
I decided it was time to live in my integrity, to align my behavior with my dreams—embrace a true fidelity to life.
Everest didn’t get smaller for the people who reached the top, and Hollywood didn’t get easier for the people who’ve made it. It was something inside them. It’s the actual belief that the only thing I can’t accomplish is the thing that is larger than my commitment…my attitude will monitor my talent.
It’s working out pretty well so far.
I quit the university job and even turned down two tenure-track offers. I teach on my own terms, which has made me more in demand than I ever imagined. I work with celebrities, actors, clergy, business people, and even family. I see my teaching as an art, and I bring everything I have to the process.
I’ve connected acting and teaching, approaching one the same way as the other—with all of myself. I recently shot my fifth project this year, and a short film I shot last year has won five “Best Picture” awards around the country. I have a full team of representation on my side, and the future looks bright.
Oh, and I live at the beach.
Now that sounds reasonable.