Actor Francis Benhamou had never met playwright Joshua Harmon when she first got the script for his drama Prayer for the French Republic, but you couldn’t be blamed for thinking they were well-acquainted. As Elodie Benhamou, a loquacious, big-haired, manic-depressive, 28-year-old French Jew, Benhamou steals the show, particularly in a blistering, nonstop monologue mid-show that goes on for almost 20 minutes. It almost feels like the role was written for her — they share a surname and a similar family background — and the fact that it wasn’t makes her performance all the more remarkable.
Playing Elodie, first off-Broadway for Manhattan Theatre Club in 2022 and now on Broadway at MTC’s Samuel Friedman Theatre, has led the real Benhamou to explore her own family history, which she hadn’t given too much thought to. A Uruguayan Jew herself, the
role is particularly meaningful for her mother, who experienced much of the antisemitism that’s described in the play during her own upbringing. As fact and fiction converge, Benhamou unpacks it all for us below.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
It’s a silly question, because you’re an actor and it’s your job, but…That huge monologue, how did you learn it?
I know. People are saying it’s like 17 minutes or something. Obviously, it’s not the same every night. Sometimes it’s slower, sometimes it’s faster, so who knows? It was much easier this time because it was already in my subconscious mind. When we started rehearsals, I went back to see how much I knew, and I pretty much knew the whole first page without even re-memorizing it. The other stuff I had to kind of bring back, but it was really quick.
What I did the first time around, I would take the four lines, memorize those, and write them out, and then the next four lines. Then I’d start from the top, and then I’d keep adding a few sentences each time. The hardest part during the original time of memorizing was that I was working on another play at the same time. I had so much information in my brain, but the brain is incredible. It’s all in there.
I saw it off-Broadway on the day Russia invaded Ukraine, and now it’s being remounted during the Israel/Hamas war. Was it as fraught an experience to put up as it seems like it was?
Each individual in the play has their own experience of it, and we’ve done a good job of not bringing it into the rehearsal room. The play takes place in 2016, before any of this happened. As the characters in the play, we have to keep that awareness that none of this has happened yet. It’s not actually beneficial to talk about what’s going on right now, which was helpful for me personally, because I do have a lot of feelings about what’s going on. Everything is so complex in real life that it didn’t help me as an actor get into the character. It’s irrelevant to Elodie in this play in this time.
Did you see yourself as Elodie in reading it?
She reminded me of a younger version of me, the one that my mom is always bitching about. [Laughs] I’m definitely as feisty as she is, but I don’t think I know as much as she does. She is a well of information and it’s important to her to learn about history. Actually, working on this play opened up my own history for me. My background is exactly like Elodie’s, and that forced me to look into the history of my family. I called my grandma, who’s a Moroccan Jew who left Morocco in the 1950s. Unfortunately, I can’t talk to my Ashkenazi grandma, but I did know a lot about her. Most of her family died in the war. And I asked my mother about the antisemitism she experienced in South America growing up.
Did your family flee Europe and go to South America?
My grandmother from Poland left four years before the war, for economic reasons, and went to Uruguay, and then on my father’s side, they left Morocco and went to Uruguay for the same reason. The international banks were starting to close, and they started to realize stuff was getting a little dicey. Being poor kind of saved my family. So these two families end up in Uruguay, my mom and dad meet, they have me, and then they moved to the United States. My grandma was way more religious and kept her traditions and was kosher, all that stuff. My mom was this hippie and she never talked about her experiences. But as she got older, and when my grandma died, I think it brought up a lot for my mom. When this play came into my life, it opened up a dialogue between us that was really revelatory.
Does your mom see herself in Elodie?
I think it’s a very powerful play for my mother. She’s very affected by it, and she’s just in awe of that monologue and the things that are being said. It’s something that she continuously brings up since she saw it two years ago.
It must mean a lot to you to know that what you’re doing has such a profound effect on her.
For sure. To know that my mom is deeply moved is really meaningful.
Is it a tough play to do every night at over three hours?
It’s exhausting. I think the hardest part is that I have a six-year-old. I have a long night and then I still have to wake up in the morning and get her ready for school. I don’t get to sleep.
Parenthood and the theater industry don’t mix well, I’ve noticed as the father of a two-year-old.
It’s been really hard, and she misses me. But she’s very curious this time around. She keeps telling me she wants to see it, and I’m like “It’s very long,” and she’s like “I know, but maybe I can stay for two hours and then I’ll leave.” She keeps pushing and pushing. So finally, my husband is going to take her next weekend.
That must be a terrifying concept for you.
I’m curious. I thought I was going to be more terrified than I am. I think it’ll be interesting for her. She’s such a precocious child. There’s this intensity about her. I think if she can really just sit and take it in…You know, she’s not going to get most of it, but it doesn’t matter. She’s going to get the feeling.
Ok, so most important question: how do you get your hair so artfully disheveled in the play? Is it a wig or is it all real?
It’s all real. I just have a lot of hair. It’s the Moroccan in me. I basically have the best prep ever. For the whole first act, the shittier I look, the worse I look, the better I feel for the show. No makeup, zero. I put a little chapstick on so my lips aren’t dry. I just sit there in my pajamas and mess up my hair, that’s my prep. Just as messy as possible. It’s all natural. All natural. I feel like my hair is a character, and I’ve been told that by hair department.