Superstore actor Ben Feldman is currently starring in South Coast Repertory’s production of Michael Mitnick’s The Siegel. Feldman plays Ethan Siegel, a man who is intent on gaining parental permission to marry Alice, played by Mamie Gummer. One problem: They broke up two years ago. Although the actor has appeared in dozens of television shows and movies, including Silicon Valley, Mad Men, and Cloverfield, he declares that his first love has always been the theatre. Now, as he makes his return to the stage, he talked with Playbill to prove his theatre bonafides.
What was your first professional job?
Ben Feldman: The cooler answer is I did a Broadway show right after I graduated college, but the weekend before I actually did this made-for-TV movie where I was a paramedic delivering a frozen liver to Ted McGinley’s dying son and then I exploded in the air and somehow survived in the woods. Ted McGinley found my struggling body and offered me a beer when this was all over. [Laughs] That same week I started doing The Graduate [on Broadway], but the movie was called Frozen Impact. My friends have since found it deep on the Internet and have had screenings of it.
What was the stage show that has most influenced you?
I would say the one that made me fall in love with theatre, with performing, was The Fantasticks. [In high school] I played one of the dads and we did it in the theatre room, on the little tiny stage. [It began] not just my love of theatre, but specifically my love of small, black box, intimate plays. It feels like I’m doing that now even though it’s in a big theatre. It’s where that love came from—connecting with an audience that’s directly in front of you and doing something that leaves you in a better mood the rest of the night. Oh, and it turns out my wife played the same part in high school! We both sing “Plant a Radish” whenever we can. [Laughs]
Is there a stage moment you witnessed (from the audience, from the wings, in rehearsal) that stays with you?
When I turned 16—my parents were divorced at the time and didn’t love hanging out with each other—I showed up to dinner with my mom and my dad was there, which was really bizarre. It turned out they were presenting a gift they had gotten me together, which was my first trip to New York without any kind of parental supervision. They planned the whole entire thing out and they gave me a notepad. You would open up the first page and it would say, “Walk outside, turn left, catch a cab going west. You’ve got a reservation.” They got my friend and me tickets to two plays. One was Nathan Lane doing A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum and the other one was a brand new show that had just transferred to Broadway called Rent [Laughs]. I got to see the original production of Rent knowing nothing about it. I just knew that people liked it. If I think back to the mid-’90s and the production that really kind of made me fall completely in love with theatre and see how magical it can be, I think it was probably that. And then I saw it like 85,000 times after that.
What’s been the biggest challenge in your career?
If you go to college and study theatre, you’re playing kings and queens. You get to do Chekhov and Shakespeare and Greek and this wide spectrum of things, and then—if you’re lucky enough to have the career I’ve had—when you first get out there you realize you’re just playing yourself in different outfits. I think the challenge was proving that I can play characters and not just the quirky young artist in the Hilary Duff movie. [The challenge was] really trying to get people to give me a chance. I would probably say that it wasn’t until Matt Weiner with Mad Men that someone was like, “Oh, maybe he can play other things.”
Who is a collaborator (from theatre) that made you better?
One of my really good friends in college was this guy named Adam Kaokept. We were doing this show called Tracers. I was playing the heartthrob, which for some reason I had convinced myself I was. I have since learned that I’m not that. [Laughs] We started getting into the production and Adam changed my part and made me this other character that’s the more conflicted, weirder, goofier guy. I think my entire future acting career changed with that part because I finally felt comfortable doing something and not like I was faking it. He was the first person to figure out who I actually am as an actor, which was a really special moment for me.
How do you balance stage and screen? Do you want to?
100 percent. My agents are tired of me harassing them about how I want to be in New York doing a play. [Laughs] In a dream world I’d have my fantastic job at Superstore and then on hiatus I’d go straight to New York and do something really cool there. This play is the first step towards that. Michael Mitnick who wrote The Siegel is a fantastic playwright. I have no doubt in my mind that this play is going to make its way [to New York]. If it does, I hope I can find a way to crowbar myself into that as well.
What has been your favorite part of working on a TV show that’s different from theatre?
Well, you get to mess up, which is quite a luxury. I went back to Ithaca where I went to school and talked to the students. We did this whole acting for the camera workshop and, of course, the projector broke the day that we were supposed to spend watching [the scenes we had filmed] so we had all of the students get back up on the stage and do their scenes live, but we had every single one of the other students in the class and the professors sit within inches of their faces. We were basically saying, “This is the difference between theatre and camera work. The audience can basically smell your breath. There’s absolutely no room for lying, for faking your way through something. You can’t be on autopilot because every single thing you do is going to be detected and they’re going to call your bullsh*t.”
How has working with Mamie Gummer been?
She’s super smart, super funny and really, really kind. She’s open to absolutely everything. There are so many actors out there that immediately just want to butt up against you and disagree with whatever it is you’re going to say. Mamie takes everything in. It’s been amazing to watch her transform from the very first table read to what she’s doing now. She’s super cool and now I consider her a good friend. It’s been a total dream.
Joe Gambino is a writer, designer, performer and Broadway lottery loser who lives in New York. Follow him on Twitter @_joegambino_.