Ben Shenkman's subtly nuanced performance opposite Mary-Louise Parker in Manhattan Theatre Club's runaway hit Proof has brought this young actor more acclaim than all of his previous outings combined. And there'll be lots more to come with the release of the indie film 30 Days (director Aaron Harnick's debut), opening in the fall.
When we discuss the coincidence of both he and his stage co-star having indie films opening at almost the same time, Shenkman demurs: "It's a bit of a stretch comparing me to Mary-Louise. She's a star who's constantly being sought after and she chooses her projects carefully. I'm still at the journeyman stage of my career, and, essentially, I take whatever comes along." Thouogh Parker repeatedly stresses her preference for stage over screen, Shenkman declares, "I don't know if I feel that way. I love movies. I mean, I'm not just a participant; I'm a real fan."
In 1993, the year after he received his M.F.A. from NYU, he landed a small role in Quiz Show, did some regional theater at Ithaca's Hangar Theatre, got a commercial and a role on Law & Order. "The template for my career began as soon as I graduated," he muses. But even in such a relatively short career, Shenkman has formed some very definite ideas about the differences between stage and screen. "The biggest difference is the topics people put on stage versus what they put in films," he feels. "With movies, they're usually interested in fantastic or heroic situations and actors who do well, or those who offer good fantasy objects to the audience, like Tom Cruise. Stage is not simply about acting out a fantasy; it offers a more unique view, and is less married to its own collective fantasy." That said, he adds, "The acting techniques used in both small indie films and naturalistic theater in an intimate space are remarkably similar."
He also speaks fondly of the more familial, theater-like feeling of smaller indies versus big studio films. "Making an indie is a really long process, the shortest part of which is the actual shoot. Then, after post [production], there are the festivals and having to be available during distribution, which can be months later. So we're in a lot of contact with each other. At the Avignon Festival here this spring, Arija [Bareikis, The Last Night of Ballyhoo], Tom [McCarthy], Aaron and [producers] Mike and Matt Rego [The Laramie Project] and Arielle Tepper [The Dead] and I were all together. And, of course, I was also at [30 Days co-star] Barbara Barrie's opening downstairs at MTC, when she was doing Current Events recently."
Barrie, Harnick's real-life mom, plays Shenkman's mother in the film; Jerry Adler (Taller Than a Dwarf) plays his dad. Shenkman plays Jordan, a commitment-phobic post-slacker working in the family liquor business, whose comfortable life is exploded by the triple whammy of his father's announcement that he's selling the store, his best friend (McCarthy)'s wedding plans, and a blind date with Bareikis.
Shenkman's theater and film resume lists Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea (Roundabout) and the Public Theater production of Anthony & Cleopatra (with Vanessa Redgrave) along with new plays like Suzan Lori-Parks' Venus (also at the Public) and Peter Hedges' Baby Anger (Playwrights Horizons). Additionally, his credits include several regional productions such as Light up the Sky at Hartford Stage, directed by Proof's Dan Sullivan. "In my very limited experience, he's in a class by himself," Shenkman enthuses about the prolific director. "He knows just what's needed in every element of the process--writing, acting, and staging--and yet his manner is so easy. He creates a sort of watchful but relaxed atmosphere of high focus. For the moment, at least, I personally don't understand the need to direct, unless it's your own story--and I'm not a writer. I also don't think of myself as a classical actor," he admits, assuring me he has no immediate plans to play Hamlet.
Among his other upcoming films are Chasing Sleep starring Jeff Daniels ("We shot it in Michigan, where Jeff lives; he drove his own Winnebago to the set!"), and Darren Aronofsky's sophomore film Requiem for a Dream (Shenkman also appeared in that director's acclaimed screen debut, Pi). He can also currently be seen in Alison Maclean's Jesus' Son, starring Bill Crudup. Shenkman seems glad that 30 Days won't be released until September--possibly a smarter marketing move than what was done with co-star Parker's latest, The Five Senses, another small ensemble film that opened on July 14 opposite this summer's mega-blockbuster, X-Men. But Shenkman himself has no particular career plan. "I just always wanted to act, even before I'd done it. Ever since the second grade," he smiles, "I knew there was something magic about it." The way he does it, there is.