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Talking With Shaun Benson of POPULAIRE

Hot off his newest film Populaire, Shaun Benson and I sat down to discuss his role in this French comedy about a speedy typist and her handsome boss. With a career that blossomed with Katherine Bigelow's K19, Benson has gone to on do a variety of high-profile and small-time film projects, participate in various theater productions, head his own photography business, and guest star in a host of television programs.

Discussing both his career and the film, Shaun and I talked the ups and downs of the business, typing, his co-stars, typecasting, his film dream-team, and Samurai’s.  If you haven't already, be sure to read our review and check out Populaire, in limited theaters this weekend.

As a Canadian, I’m assuming you already knew French for the film.

Shaun Benson: I had learned it in grade school, but in high school it was optional. And I really liked it so I kept taking it. It was something I needed a coach for, for sure, because I hadn’t really spoken it for like 15 years. I had enough of a foundation and actually it was a bonus that I hadn’t spoken it a lot because I had no accent. When I auditioned, the guy was like, “I can’t even tell where you’re from,” and it’s basically because I was so bad. Ultimately when we formed our accent, we got to create the sort of Parisian, mid-Northern, France thing we wanted. I think they had a couple Quebec actors that they kind of liked but they couldn’t move forward with because they could not lose the accent. I don’t know if you know Quebec well, it’s really guttural and it’s really “I tolk like these.”

Your character, Bob, is supposed to be an American living in France. 

SB: Exactly.

So it’s almost perfect that your first language was English.

SB: That’s right.

Speaking of firsts, this was director Régis Roinsard's first time doing a feature length film, did you notice any hiccups working under him or did things go surprisingly smoothly?

SB: It’s ridiculous how smooth it was. Tresor Productions has a huge track record. If you look them up you’ll see its ridiculous how good they are. And Alain Attal - who’s the head of Tresor - he’s in the best way really hands on. So he’s not there calling shots or he’s not there calling edits, nothing like that. They wouldn’t be able to work together, if that was the case. But he’s available as a resource and I only say that, because he loved the script so much and he loved Regis’ approach. But Guillaume Schiffman, also, who was the DP. He also shot The Artist and got an Oscar nomination for that. So Regis had such a clear vision, because it was such a personal story for him. It’s totally fictional, but the era and the typewriting thing, and it was shot in the town of his grandmother. So his internal clarity, combined with Alain’s ability to build a team, was not only not a hiccup, but one of the most professional things I’ve ever been a part of.

You've worked on both larger budgets films as well as independent films, where do you prefer to work and why?

SB: That’s such a tough question and I don’t want to cop out on it. I generally prefer the blockbuster and the bigger stuff. Especially on something like Populaire where I’m not playing Romain’s role, but I’ve got a nice role and it was four months in France. I’m working with Berenice Bejo just before booking the part in The Artist and she’s one of the best actresses I’ve ever seen, let alone worked with. I didn’t know Romain until we worked together and I’m like “Holy shit.” Nothing he’s done has really translated over like a Vincent Cassel or anythingbut, I mean, over there he’s huge and he’s so phenomenal. I used to go watch him and Debora do their close-ups just to learn, in scenes I wasn’t in. So it’s really tough to say that an indie film is as good as that, because the breadth of the life. Because it’s not just action to cut, it’s the life around it. And there’s no way that I can deny that. 

Like my first film, K-19, with Harrison Ford and Liam Neeson and Catherine Bigelow directed it. Point Break was one of my favorite movies. And it was just one of those things where it’s a four month shoot and even though I’m barely in the movie, I was there every day.

I just shot an independent. The Mark Penney film on IMDB. That one I was in every single scene. The depth and breadth of what I had to do, as a character and the action to cut depth and breadth was phenomenal…but the team wasn’t as experienced. It’s not going to look like the edits of the typing contest. Who knows what’s going to become of that film. I grow just as much from that but the overall 24-hour a day life of it just isn’t as exciting.

I heard that Al Pacino used to just stare at walls between takes. He did not know how to function when the camera wasn’t rolling. I do know how to function when the camera’s not rolling, and I really like functioning when the camera’s not rolling. It was part of what let me sustain an acting career, because in my twenties I tried to aspire to that whole “If I’m not acting, I’m nothing” crap. 

I think it’s necessary for young men to prove their shit to themselves for the fans or whoever. But I don’t need to do that anymore. I would still love my career to just keep growing so I still have desires and all that. But I’m really happy when I can stroll through Paris or Belgium in 

between takes. So I do have to say I prefer those large-scale projects, for the life of it. 

Déborah François was an absolute delight in the film, what was your experience working with her? 

SB: She’s just stunning and talented. Again, she’s one of those ones where I remember watching the first take and I just couldn’t believe it. But the thing about this, and Romain’s another example, because the two of them were always there. Berenice came in and out because she had a smaller part and most of it takes place in the house. So the way that shoots she’s not around a lot. With the other two and Deborah, it’s just… I mean if I think about some of those car scenes or the typing contests, we’re shooting for an hour a day with the camera actually rolling. The other 12 hours we’re on set is just hanging out. Now we’re getting into character and learning lines and all that stuff. There’s work to it. 

So what do I think of Deborah? How was it, working with her? It was awesome. We got along great. We’d make up songs and we’d shoot the shit. I’d tell her about my girlfriend. She’d tell me about her boyfriend. We’d smoke butts in between takes and I’d bum them of her, because I was trying to quit smoking and all that stuff. There’s no one big anecdote. Their work is phenomenal so just immediate respect. But it’s the hanging out. It’d be like if me and you were writing something and we were only allowed to write five minutes an hour. The rest of it’s just how well we get along and Deborah’s just a gem. I’d love to hang out with her in a heartbeat. 

I work part time as a transcriptionist-for-hire so I was certainly impressed with Rose's type speed. Was Deborah actually a menace at the keyboard?

SB: Totally. When we first started in France, we were up in Normandy, and she would have her typing thing in her room but there was a way that it wasn’t clacking all the time. So we’d all go out for a drink or something and it would be midnight. We’d drop her off at her room be like, “What are you doing?” and she’d be like “I’m typing for two hours.” Because there was no way to be able to shoot that stuff. And even for that one piano piece she plays. She had a teacher for that for months. So she’s actually pretty accomplished. And the girls in that scene, I think they’re Yugoslavian. They were shipped in from some former Soviet Union country. They just showed up, they dressed them as extras, and every one of them is actually typing that well. They were from some kind of typing, secretarial, you know where they all get up and do calisthenics in the morning for their leader. That kind of country. 

So how are your typing skills? 

SB: I have none. I’m not horrible, but I couldn’t transcribe effectively anything. 

There's such a sense of camaraderie and friendly competition, a character trait that your Bob Taylor really embodies, in Populaire. Was the mood on set as friendly and all-for-one as the film's message? 

SB: It actually was. Imagine it toned down so it’s sustainable. I think I shot 25 days. Romain shot 55 days. So not every second of every day, but the lightness and the whatever, I can only speak from my own experience. I assume everybody else was the same. But I was on set a lot. And we’d just be sitting there waiting, and Deborah would be across and we’d just be yelling jokes or whatever. It really did have a sort of effervescent thing. For me the real key was that relationship with Romain. And without getting too boring about my acting process, when I met him we just immediately clicked. And I don’t know why and I don’t really know what, on my first day of shooting everybody was really listening for my accent. I was kind of an unknown quantity, because the other three had done so much work over in France. The end of my first shooting day was actually a little bit tense. There was no great release the way I was expecting. There normally is at the end of a shooting day, where it’s like, “Whooo. Yay we got it.” 

A few days later I shot again and there was still no kind of release. It was the only part of the picture that was remotely tense for me. I knew that it was going pretty good but there was such attention to this accent, such attention my French, and such attention to specifics of the scenes. And then it was two days later when I Alain the producer, he looked at me across the room and he comes running across and he just breaks into the biggest grin and gives me this huge bear hug. And I was like, “What the fuck’s going on?” and he said “we just finally saw the dailies from the first day and nobody noticed what the hell you were doing. It’s lovely, because it’s like you and Romain were best friends for 20 years, which the film needs.” 

I didn’t know that was there either, but the point is that nobody saw the forest for the trees and that’s fine because those trees had to be there. And then we had the release. And then as we moved forward shooting, everybody knew that this competitive friendship, between the two of them, was deep and there. But it took a sec, before we knew that that was there. And that was so key. So without that… I don’t know if you have ever seen a buddy movie where it looks like the best friend and lead have never hung out.  It looks like they’ve never gotten drunk together. Luckily, for whatever reason, Romain and I had a good relationship. I was talking to him the other day and when we go to France we stay with him or visit him or whatever. And same with Regis. So we all connected. 

Speaking of your acting process, what steps did you take to get into character? 

SB: My favorite movie ever is Singing in the Rain. So that whole era and that sense and that Gene Kelley kind of thing that the director and I spoke about over the phone – the archetypal American from that era. And whether you call it Donald Draper or Gene Kelley, that’s kind of what it is.  So that was already something I had a pretty good, relaxed, hold on. As soon as my hair got slicked back, it was just kind of like 80 percent of that work was done. When I talk about how much fun it was, it doesn’t negate that it’s the hardest acting I’ve ever done, because of the language. I'm not fluent in French. I may be close now, but I sure wasn’t when we started. 

So I had to just relate to Romain, independent of the words, independent of the actions, independent of out costumes, independent of whether we were playing tennis or driving a car. It’s just about relating. And I don’t know how to really describe doing that, other than I spent years practicing it. And the way I practiced it, is generally through this thing called Meisner technique. When it came time to do this it paid off, because the whole thrust of the Meisner is that the words don’t matter. So that’s why we can do this exercise called repetition and it’s basically gibberish. And so the words don’t matter, which means that by bouncing this stuff, I got to test it because my French was so bad. If Romain improvised, I probably couldn’t tell what he was saying. By the end of the film maybe. 

The point is that the relating had to stay open. And so the short answer to your question is: I had to stay open, while I got my dialogue coach in one ear, the make-up lady doing other things, the producer kind of suggesting it could be a little more whatever, and then the director giving me a note, and then having all the stuff to then do once the camera rolls. They said to create a layer this thick around myself and my performance, just to deal with the technical aspects and all of what was going on. It was so draining. I’d go home at night, at let’s say seven or eight when we wrapped, because we usually shot days. And the other cast and crew, they were so apologetic. Romain would be like, “Look: these first two weeks are so busy. I’m sorry we can’t go out dancing or to drinks or whatever.” And I’m like, “Romain, I couldn’t fucking go out if I wanted. I’m so tired. I’m using all of my spidey-skills just to get through the day.” Eventually it got easier, and eventually we did start to go dancing and all that. But I didn’t need to do anything, other than shoot, go meditate,workout, eat good food, go to bed. 

Sounds like a good life. 

SB: It is a good life. 

Although this is a very light-hearted film, I'm sure that the filming wasn't necessarily always bubbling over with cheer. Can you tell me about the hardest day on set for you?

SB: It was a brutal day. I had flown in from Toronto. And I think I was working on something else, in the gap, so I couldn’t fly earlier. So I landed that day, because you land at eight AM and go right to set. The bottom line is I was up for about 50 hours, before we started shooting, because of jet-lag. So then when we started shooting, and it was the first time, because I went back and forth to Toronto a few times. So it was the first went back after being away, and so I had to sort of regroup for France, regroup for the kind of work, and I had no sleep. I’m talking so little sleep it was ridiculous. 

There were times, when we were doing these takes, where I felt my eyes actually starting to close on me. I used to have this in University, when I would have Bio-Chem lectures at eight AM on a Friday. And I’d just be sitting there and the guys talking and I’m interested but I’m falling asleep. And I felt like that was happening and then my dialect coach… he was awesome, he’s one of my favorite guys on the whole shoot, we became really close. But because of the language difference, he didn’t have a lot of tact. So he’d walk up and he’d just go, “Man, you’re so tired. Man, you are wrecked.” And he’s telling me this between takes. He’s actually trying to empathize but it’s not coming across that way. So I’m starting to get mad at him. And that was one of those days that took a while, because we had a bunch of stuff to shoot, so it was really hard and every take was a challenge. I can’t hyper-caffeinate in two secs or whatever.

There’s no complaints about it. It really is such a beautiful job and this particular shoot was essentially the best of my life, because of that big picture thing. But that day was brutal. I wasn’t sure I was going to get through it. You know when I was in my 20’s I used to party a lot and do a lot of drugs and stuff. So I’d showed up sketched out to sets before and showed up unable to do my best before. There was even a part of me, internally, that didn’t know the difference if you know what I mean. So a bit of guilt and shame started to kick in. You know that self-questioning on sleep deprivation. I just had to put that aside and go, “That’s not why you’re tired right now. You didn’t go out last night and screw the pooch. You’re doing your best.” That gave me strength. It let me go, “You’ve been here before for all the wrong reasons. Now you need to be here. Yeah you were tired, the flight was long, just do your best.” And it’s weird, because the idea of “do your best” used to be scary to me, because I wanted to be perfect. 

You know, perfectionism is a quick way to depression and failure, because there is no such thing. So I’ve learned to just do my best. And by the way that scene plays great. My girlfriend, it’s one of her favorite scenes, the bar one where La vamp shows up and starts smoking with Romain. This is all simple but I think part of it is its simple because I’m so damn tired. Even the beginning of the scene is me just bored as hell, because he just keeps talking about Deborah’s character and it’s like, “Oh right, that actually plays in. It’s a bit of a blessing.” 

One of the things I just love about the film is its take on fledging feminism. It's framed in such positive and forward-looking light. What do you think the message of the film is to young women across the globe? 

SB: Honestly, I’ve never thought about it. I’ve got to be honest, I think I’m too close to the film still. I’ve only seen it three times. And I’m still watching for my stuff and listening to my work so I can’t answer that, because I don’t have a perspective on it. I just don’t. I’d be making something up. 

Do you prefer playing characters that are similar to you or starkly different?

SB: A lot of times when I play a guest lead on a show, even this last little while, I’ll play someone who’s super arrogant or even dangerously evil. I seem to get cast in that a fair bit. Even if it’s not full blown, just sociopaths. So when I went and played Bob, I had just done a strand of TV shows where I quite literally either pulled a gun on myself to kill myself or other people, for four or five episodes in a row. And I remember calling my girlfriend, Emily, from France and saying, “I’m, for the first time in I think my career, playing somebody who’s content.” Partly because it’s not Bob’s story. I like to say “pre-crash/post-crash.” So Louis, Romain’s character, is going along with his life and he’s about to crash against the shoals of Rose. He thinks he’s got the life he wants but she reveals that something has to change in him, for him to be the man he wants to be. 

I believe that Bob had already been through that with World War Two, with staying in France, leaving his home country for love. He even says at the end of the movie “America for business, France for love.” So for me the clues were all through the script that Bob was post-crash. Bob’s good. Bob’s got his home, he’s got his family. He’s got it as a counterpoint, and he also got it with Romain’s childhood sweetheart. Even that, on the first couple days that we were shooting, Regis and I talked about it a lot, because Rose drops stuff and bends over. Obviously, you notice that she is a pretty girl but don’t leer at her. Your friendship with Romain, Louis, is such that you want it for him, not for you. And I really understood that. 

Even all that layered stuff of “Oh she’s sexy” or that extra edge got removed. It’s one of the nicest things I’ve ever had to do, is just play a good guy. But in general, like I just did a recurring role on a TV show and the first episode was really nice and the ninth episode, when I came back I turned, and I will say the turn was a lot more fun. So the question was “characters close to me.” I’m pretty laid back. I don’t have a lot of problems in my life. I don’t have a lot of complaints. I hope I don’t create a lot of drama for myself or anybody. So I’m more like Bob. I think I prefer playing the other. I think it’s nice to swing for the fences a bit and stretch out a bit. 

If you had your pick of the liter, who would you like to work with? Say a dream actor, actress and director.

SB: The dream actor and director combo would be De Niro and Scorsese, because to me that’s just one of the best combos ever. I think Scorsese still is one of the best directors working and I think he’s the best one ever for me. Tarantino’s close for me. And I also think De Niro’s still got incredible work in him and I don’t think in Silver Linings Playbook. I still think the Oscar nod is as much about “please keep doing work like this.” Not that in itself was an Oscar worthy performance. It was good, but that’s De Niro as a B. De Niro’s best is so much better than that. I pray he’s still got that in him and I would give my eye teeth to be in that.

As far as actress goes, I was talking about this the other day. I might want to get back to you on this. I mean Angelina Jolie, for me, is just so wonderful. I just think she brings so much to it, when I watch a movie like Salt. That’s not a movie that many girls could pull off. And she doesn’t just do it because she’s a badass. But I don’t think that’s my answer.

By the way, this is more of a shout-out to Toronto, but I just watched all ten episodes of Wolf in Black and I’m actually being looked at for a role on it right now. The idea of going and shooting with Tatiana Maslany…I’m not the only one going, “Holy shit. Is this for real what she’s doing on a TV show?” Not a lot of people noticed, until the critics association gave her the award for best actress, and then everybody noticed. She’s incredible. For me, though, it’s almost like before Paul Newman died he’d be my answer, even though De Niro is more my answer, because Paul Newman is closer to that. So I’d have to just say Meryl Streep. Sorry. That’s one of those that’s so obvious but for a reason. By the way, like even with the guys, like Jack Nicholson is the other one. Like are you kidding me. Like fuck.

Populaire has been one of my favorite films of the year so far. What are some of your favorite films from the year as well as just favorite films of all time?

SB: I don’t get out to the cinema much. I’m a lazy fucking actor that way. My two favorite of all time are Taxi Driver and Singing in the Rain. I watch them probably every month. I never get bored of them and I get more interested each time. Even though they are so different, those really are my two acting role models, Gene Kelley and Robert De Niro, as far as just how great they are. 

For this year, I just loved This is the End. I was blown away. I had no idea it was going to be that good. And the first few scenes you’re like, “This is going to be fun. These guys are just riffing. I’ll watch these guys riff as themselves for two hours.” And then when it turned left, it just got so much better. And I’m such a huge fan of every one of those guys, so I put that up there. 

I don’t think it’s one of the best or anything, but my buddy and I hadn’t seen a movie in a while and we were both tired so we saw Iron Man 3. I don’t think the movie is incredible, although I thought it was way better than two. Fucking Downy Jr. can do no wrong. He can’t misdeliver a line. He never overreaches nor underperforms. If you took the kid in that movie, take the two of them, played the exact same scenes but on a road trip movie where the kid had to go to the cancer institute, because he was dying, you’d have Downy’s Oscar. He’s that good in everything he does. And the charm, and the wit, and the depth of loss that he brings to everything. Obviously, he’s one of my favorite actors, going way back to the 80’s. But I just love that movie. I love blockbuster movies. I don’t go to the cinema to see movies that would look as good on my TV. I want to fucking be backed up into my chair. That’s what I loved about This is the End, because I wasn’t expecting that. 

Now you're a 4th degree blackbelt, if you were a superhero, who would you be and why?

SB: I’m not a comic book guy. I’ve always loved Batman and maybe it’s the whole Tim Burton 1991 or whatever. I still love that original Batman movie. I’d make up a character called ‘The Samurai’ and he’d have a fuckin' katana and short swords. And he’d basically be a version of a ninja, samurai, fuckin' warlord meets every-day dude. 

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