Born and raised in Littleton, CO, 26-year-old Melissa Benoist is best known for her role as Marley-Rose on the song-and-dance TV juggernaut Glee. This week, however, her considerable charms are repurposed for the big screen in Damien Chazelle’s feature drama Whiplash, starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons.
Teller plays Andrew, an aspiring jazz drummer who burns away all distractions from his life in the relentless pursuit of musical greatness. These sacrifices come in many forms (his relationship with his father, his mental and physical well-being) but his budding romance with Benoist’s magnetic Nicole is perhaps hardest to watch him destroy. In a refreshing undoing of the conventional romantic interest trope, Chazelle sets Nicole up as Andrew’s would-be supportive girlfriend… until she reveals herself far too three-dimensional to be somebody’s plot point. It’s a sensitive part, in many ways the human center of Whiplash; Benoist’s winsome guilelessness is a crucial contrast to the spiraling perversity of Andrew and his teacher, Fletcher (Simmons).
Prior to Whiplash and Glee, Benoist appeared in Law & Order (both Criminal Intent and Special Victims Unit), The Good Wife and Homeland. With several feature projects forthcoming—including a Nicholas Sparks adaption, a Mark Twain reimagining and a role alongside Al Pacino—and her sights set even higher, the actress will continue to be a welcome distraction—to audiences, if not aspiring drummers.
Kerry O’Conor, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): How did you first hear about Whiplash?
Melissa Benoist (MB): My agent sent me the script last summer. I was on hiatus from Glee and I magically had the time to do it. As soon as I read the script, I knew I wasn’t going to allow myself to not get the role. I had three auditions with Damien and they were all really positive. He’s such a creative mind that it was hard not to just jump into it and feel Nicole in my bones.
MM: Damien, Miles Teller and yourself are all very young talents. It’s cool how such a young creative team came in and swept Sundance with this great film. What was it like having this brilliant young guy in charge on set?
MB: It’s the most positive experience I’ve had to this day. Damien is brilliant and kind. He also has enough confidence that he’s not precious with his words or his writing. He wants the actors to feel the freedom to just be in the moment, to listen to each other and make the performance as raw and gritty as possible. That was something that had so much impact on me, and it made working on set just electric and exciting.
MM: One of the strongest emotional scenes in the film is toward the end, and it takes place with Andrew (Miles Teller) talking to you on the phone. How did you guys shoot that scene?
MB: Originally, Damien wanted to shoot my half of the phone call. He wanted me to come back to shoot my half of the conversation. But then they actually called me while they were on set doing something else, and I literally did it over my cell phone while I was sitting in bed at my house with my dogs.
MM: Very authentic, then?
MB: Yeah, really authentic. I love that scene, too. During the audition, Damien had me do an improv exercise where he told me, “OK, this is months after he’s broken up with you, and you see him on the subway. What happens?” That was such a fun scene to play. It’s not quite revenge, but she’s definitely getting something out of hurting him.
MM: What do you think brought so much energy to the film?
MB: I think that the script is a really powerful thing. I had never read a script like that before. I’ve been starved for scripts like that because so many of the movies that I’d love to do are obviously unattainable to me right now, but this script was just so incredible.
MM: Did you have any initial apprehensions about working with such a relatively inexperienced director?
MB: No, I was immediately on board. From meeting Damien, I just knew. He was so very clear about what his vision was, and he was so knowledgeable about the subject matter. A lot of it is autobiographical. I just trusted him automatically. There was never a doubt in my mind that he was going to succeed with this.
MM: What are some of the differences you noticed between working on an indie like Whiplash as opposed to a more mainstream project like Glee?
MB: I honestly prefer working on indie films. I prefer the people, I prefer a more intimate setting. That’s how I find the moments that I’m looking for as an actor. I had a really positive experience with this film, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have respect for the other side of the business. I worked on a Nicholas Sparks movie this past summer that had a pretty large budget, and it’s crazy to see that in action. There’s definitely something glamorous and Old Hollywood about it. But at the same time, when fame and financial success are not on the agenda at all, that’s when the true art form emerges. I really respect that.
MM: Did you go to Sundance for any screenings of the film?
MB: I did. I’m so happy I got to be there! It was funny, I thought, “Oh, I’ll go and I’ll have time to ski, and my sister lives in Salt Lake, so she’ll drive up!” I had no time to hang out with my sister, no time to even look at the slopes; for a good reason, but still. I don’t think any of us really expected the attention that the film received. I knew people were going to like it, I knew it was going to make people think, but being there was like a whirlwind.
MM: As you’ve demonstrated, you’re also a very talented singer. How does that talent guide your career path?
MB: I don’t necessarily think of myself as a singer. I did musical theater growing up and it taught me so much about how to express myself. I had to learn how to act while I sang and that’s not an easy thing to do. It helped me learn how to feel something but show it subtly. I’m never ever going to put an album out, I don’t think of myself as a singer in that way, but I definitely think it will guide my career in the future. Hopefully, people will make more musical movies. That’s what I grew up watching. Singing is much more of a visceral thing, where you can lose yourself. But acting’s like therapy to me.
MM: What do you mean by therapy?
MB: I’m a really emotional person, like, scarily so. Acting’s always been a way for me to channel the things that I don’t necessarily know how to cope with, things I have trouble finding a place for in my day-to-day-life while still functioning as a human being [laughs].
MM: Do you have any specific career goals? Any interest in Broadway?
MB: Definitely, that’s been a dream of mine since I was a little girl. I’d love to be in a Broadway play, I’d love to do Shakespeare on stage. I look at careers like Cate Blanchett’s and I admire them so much. I want that variety, I want to travel the world. I sound naïve, but that is something I really do think of as a goal. I want there to always be humanity driving my work. I want my personal life to inform it more than anything else does. I want to do things that I care about, that I connect to.
MM: Do you have any dream parts? Anybody whose head you’d really like to get inside of?
MB: I’d really love to do a Tennessee Williams play. Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof would be a dream role of mine.
MM: You’re in Dan Fogelman’s new film [entitled Imagine] too, aren’t you?
MB: Yeah, I was working on that simultaneously with Whiplash. It’s a tearjerker, and Al [Pacino] is amazing in it. Working with him was a surreal experience. He’d be telling me stories about he and Martin Sheen in the ’70s when they were 19 years old. Kind of insane [laughs]. But a very kind man. MM
Whiplash opens in limited theaters October 10, 2014, courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
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