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HomeIndustry SectorLaura Benanti on Life and Beth, Mothers, Broadway, and Writing Her Own...

Laura Benanti on Life and Beth, Mothers, Broadway, and Writing Her Own Show

The role Laura Benanti plays on Hulu’s Life and Beth, which recently returned for its second season, is an interesting one, especially because – spoiler alert – she dies in the first episode. Working primarily with actresses Violet Young and Lily Fisher, who play the younger versions of sisters Beth and Ann, portrayed as adults by Amy Schumer and Susannah Flood, Benanti gets to craft a character who left a searing impact on her daughters that has followed them through their lives.

Above the Line spoke with Benanti, a five-time Tony nominee and winner for Gypsy in 2008, about tackling this small but impactful TV role, as well as other memorable appearances on television in The Detour, Supergirl, Nashville, Younger, and The Gilded Age. She reflected on her substantial time on Broadway and how the mediums she works in – including film, like last year’s No Hard Feelings – have been impacted by the pandemic and strikes. She also spoke with excitement about Laura Benanti: Nobody Cares, the new stage show she’s written that’s currently occupying most of her time.

Above the Line: Jane is like a specter on Life and Beth, because we meet her, she’s gone, and then we get to know her a little bit more, but so sporadically that it almost doesn’t feel like she’s a real person, or like she’s a figment of Beth’s imagination. What’s your read on her?

Laura Benanti: I think we meet her in that first episode as her older self, so you see the unhealthy dynamic between she and Beth immediately. And then what I like about the unearthing of the origin of that relationship is, isn’t that what we’re all doing all the time? Unpacking our relationship with our parents? We get to see more and more into Jane and her foibles, and why she became the narcissist that she became and how it affected her children. But then the grace that Beth has for her, that she is able to overcome some of the damage, just in understanding that her mother was a person, coming to the conclusion that her mom was doing the best that she could, even if that means that she hurt her children sometimes.

ATL: The moments that we do see her, which again are very rare, especially in Season Two, are edited into the narrative in a very compelling way. What are you aware of, as far as what the rest of the cast is doing since you’re really not sharing scenes with most of them? 

Benanti: Nothing! I get to just observe. I get to watch it like a fan. 

ATL: Is that challenging at all, to not know what’s going on there, or you feel like that’s not really part of what your assignment is?

Benanti: I think I have a very specific assignment with Violet and Lily, the young women who play young Amy and her sister. In a way, I don’t want to know how far she’s come. I think I’ve got to stay in my lane of, Jane is the hero of the Jane show. In Jane’s world, it’s Life and Jane. So I feel like that is my job.

Laura Benanti (center) with Violet Young (L), Lily Fisher in Life and Beth (Hulu)

ATL: What is it like working with Violet? She’s incredibly talented. 

Benanti: She’s brilliant. So is Lily. Both of those young women are just extraordinary to me. And also, as people, they’re so well-adjusted, and it’s in many ways because their mothers are incredible. They have strong, powerful, loving moms who are there with them, who both have great senses of humor. So it was actually really special to get to be with them and to connect with their mothers.

ATL: There’s that scene in the third episode where Jane comes in so strong yelling at Beth and then just starts maniacally laughing with her. How easy is it to approach a scene like that? 

Benanti: I don’t know – easy, hard – there’s no way to quantify what is hard or not in acting. Acting with Violet is a joy. That’s what the scene called for, and that’s what made sense. Amy’s a brilliant director, so it was just a day at work. Thats just what we did. It wasn’t like I was psyching myself up. It’s just what was called for.

ATL: I think most people who have small roles in shows like this might wish for something bigger, but it seems like you might actually be happy with the size and impact of your part here. 

Benanti: Yeah, I knew coming in what it was. It’s not like I thought, “Oh, she’s going to be in every scene.” I came in with the understanding of what the role was going to be. That would be very foolish of me to be disappointed about something that I always knew was the case. It was nice, because it allowed me to do so many other things at the same time, which was awesome. I got the gift of being in a show that is so brilliant, written by my friend who I love very much and played this really interesting, layered character. And be blonde, so I have no complaints.

ATL: Is there anyone from the cast that you would love to share a scene with where you think the characters would be interesting together if the timeline allowed for it somehow or a dream scene? 

Benanti: Well, Michael Cera is so brilliant. Acting with Michael would be super fun, and it would be interesting to see how he relates to Jane, who is the opposite of him.

(L-R) Violet Young, Lily Fisher, Laura Benanti, Michael Rapoport in Life and Beth (Hulu/Photo by Marcus Price)

ATL: Your past TV work includes The Detour and your fantastic delivery of “Mail, mail! We will not fail!” Was that a fun part to have? 

Benanti: Yeah, that was such a fun part. I absolutely loved playing that character. I was nine months pregnant when I did that, the first season that I was in. I was pregnant, and then in the final season that I was in, I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I had my baby, but I had to wear this giant pregnancy belly for a lot of it, so that was not fun, that part, but those guys are so funny. Jason Jones is just so funny and it’s just a great group of people. I really loved that show and that character and how wacky she was, and it was really fun.

ATL: You also did Supergirl, which is something so completely different and also gave you the chance to play two very, very different characters within the same show. 

Benanti: Yeah, that was fun to get to play an evil twin and a good twin. Who doesn’t want to be able to do that at some point in their life?

ATL: Broadway obviously has a lot of very devoted fans, but then the superhero universe is an entirely different kind of thing. Did you experience any kind of interaction with fans that you didn’t expect from that show? 

Benanti: It’s interesting, because I’ve done so many different things that I have people who know me from a niche thing. Some people know me from Supergirl, and other people from Broadway, other people from Nashville, other people from Melania, other people from Younger. Sometimes, they don’t know the other things exist. When a few Nashville fans came to see a concert that I was doing, they were shocked that I wasn’t a country music singer. It’s always interesting to me to see the different kinds of people that respond to different things, and they’re always lovely, which is really nice.

ATL: Many tiny roles on TV series are filled by huge Broadway stars that those who aren’t Broadway fanatics might not know. The way you framed it earlier is, you get to do a show like this and then there’s still time for so much else. Is that typically how it works? 

Benanti: I can’t speak to teeny, teeny roles. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve gotten to play nice, big roles. But yeah, I think that the diversification of one’s interests and job selection, anytime you’re able to do A) anything or B) more than one thing, is really nice.

ATL:  Do you have a preference for any medium?

Benanti: Kind of. I’m lucky that it’s the one I’m in. It’s like the “love the one you’re with” mentality. When I’m doing that thing, I’m like, “Oof, I love this.” I feel really lucky that I get to do so many different things. It really keeps my brain nice and massaged.

Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti in No Hard Feelings (Sony)

ATL: We’re also not that far removed from No Hard Feelings, which is somewhat Detour-esque in the screwball comedy sense, but a little bit more anchored. What was it like to be part of that film? 

Benanti: It was so fun. I love working with Matthew Broderick, and Jennifer Lawrence is so cool and so funny. It was a great time. I’ve known Andrew Barth Feldman from theater for a long time, since he was graduating high school. It was a really fun experience.

ATL: Speaking of theater, I don’t see much but I did enjoy seeing you in She Loves Me. Do you have any fun memories from that show? 

Benanti: I was secretly pregnant with my daughter, and I had hyperemesis, which means you will have morning sickness all day, every day, for the entirety of your pregnancy. So I just remember running off stage to barf, mostly, that’s what I remember. But it was so fun. You know, that part wasn’t fun. But I just love that show. It’s like a sweet jewel box of a musical.

ATL: What do you look for in a Broadway role? 

Benanti: What I look for in any role, which is a multi-dimensional human being and which is getting easier and easier to find in female roles, roles for women. But women are still not allowed to be as complicated as men, which is one of the reasons why I think Amy’s writing is so brilliant, because she allows every character to be multidimensional and you have light and dark and good and bad and all of the things in between. But yeah, humanity is mostly what I look for. And also I love comedy, so anytime I’m able to be in a comedy, that’s going to be my favorite thing to do.

ATL: Would you say there’s one role in particular that is the most multidimensional that you’ve had?

Benanti: I’d have to think about that more. That’s a really good question… that I can’t find the answer to right off the top of my head.

ATL: Anything that’s allowed you to tap into something you haven’t done before?

Benanti: Yeah, I was in a movie with Michael Keaton called Worth. That was a very beautiful movie, and that was a very challenging character to play, but it was very gratifying, ultimately. And then I did a show on Broadway called Gypsy, where I played the famous burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee. I got to play her from childhood into adulthood, so that was really interesting, too. Honestly, even though I don’t spend a whole lot of time in Life and Beth, that character is complicated. She definitely has a lot going on and needs to make a big impact in small little bite-sized nuggets, which is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

ATL: Is there a genre or time period or just something that you haven’t tried before that you’d really like to try in the future?

Benanti: Well, I just got to do The Gilded Age, which was so fun. That’s an era that I’ve always wanted to be in.

ATL: And Broadway actors all over the place on that one!

Benanti. Yeah, exactly. That period is just so beautiful to me, so, frankly, I’d like to be able to do more of that. But yeah, I feel like I’m the kind of person who… I don’t do a lot of planning. I wrote a show that I did at the Minetta Lane Theatre that I’m going to do again. Amy’s actually involved in it as well. It’s a 75-minute comedy show. I’m hoping to get to do that more and more and to get to do it all over the country. That, to me, would be really fun to have that opportunity.

Laura Benanti in Worth (Netflix)

ATL: Has anything surprised you about that experience so far, being in control of your own material? 

Benanti: I think a lot of times as actors we are at the whim of someone else so we spend a lot of time waiting around for somebody to write us something, and it’s nice to take matters into my own hands. I’ve always had the ability to do more than say other people’s lines, so to get to write – I wrote all of the material, I wrote the songs – to have an opportunity to do that and be funny in a way that might be surprising to some people, feels really fun and exciting. I do feel like it’s a new phase of my career, and in my development, that I’m really excited is happening.

ATL: Are there any influences that you can pinpoint that maybe you didn’t expect? 

Benanti: Mike Birbiglia is such a beautiful storyteller, and yet he remains so funny. So I feel like while our styles are very, very different, I am drawn to his storytelling.

ATL: You’ve mentioned so many projects already. Is there something from what you’ve done that you feel like people never ask you about or never comes up, but still occupies a space in your brain? 

Benanti: What a good question. Maybe Worth. It was such a beautiful film, but it came out during the pandemic. It was the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 and I just feel like everyone was like, “No, thank you! Things are bleak enough.” I feel like that film deserved more than it got, but other than that, I feel very satisfied and happy with my career and the way that people have talked about it. I also, as I get older, have learned that I can’t control what people ask me or say about me or write about me or quote me as saying. I just hold it all loosely.

ATL: I saw Worth at Sundance in person right before the pandemic, and then it ended up coming out later on Netflix.

Benanti: Exactly right, and it’s so funny, because I remember flying back and everyone being like, “Oof, I got so sick at Sundance, and I’m pretty sure we all had COVID.”

ATL: How have all the industries that you’re part of changed during the pandemic, and do you think that things are fully shifted back or there are some things that will never quite change? 

Benanti: Certainly, Broadway was affected the most, because it’s a live medium where people are packed in together. So that was really, really hard. I was lucky with television that we were one of the first jobs to go back. We were testing every day. I was doing Younger and Gossip Girl at the same time, so I felt so blessed to have these jobs. But I think we’re seeing now too with TV and film after the strikes, things are really, really shifting. I think it’s going to take a while for it to get back to a space where there’s enough to go around. I think because there were fewer films, movie stars were doing a lot of TV, so then the roles that would typically have gone to TV stars were going to movie stars, and then the TV stars were taking the next best role, and then the parts that would have gone to people like me. It’s like a trickle-down economics that doesn’t work for anybody who is not a big star. My hope is that the climate will shift a bit and it’ll go back to normal so that working actors and crew and wardrobe and everybody involved can get back to work in a way that makes our quality of life sustainable.

Laura Benanti in The Gilded Age (HBO)

ATL: From talking to the creatives of The Gilded Age, it sounds like that was a show that only came about because of the pandemic, because all these people who are usually busy on Broadway were suddenly available. 

Benanti: Yeah, they certainly could have done it with other actors, I’m sure, but I think there’s something about the heightened language that lends itself to Broadway folks, for sure. I think that there is a naturalism that is hard to achieve when the language is that lifted, that elevated, and that’s something that I think people who perform on Broadway have a really good understanding of.

ATL: You mentioned that you have your own show. What else is next for you?

Benanti: That’s my main focus right now. The show is called Laura Benanti: Nobody Cares, and I’m in the process right now of figuring out the next steps for it. That is my main, number one focus. I’m really, really excited about it, and I feel like in many ways, it could be a game changer for me. Not in a “I’m going to be a star!” kind of way. That’s never been my trajectory or my interest, frankly, but I think in terms of people being able to quantify what I do, because I’ve done so many different things. I think in some ways it’s confusing, because we love to put people into a box. It makes us more comfortable. So I think that this could be the kind of thing that helps people go like, “Oh!” And it’s just really fun. It’s nice to have created something that I feel really proud of that people are responding to in such a positive way. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such a positive response to anything I’ve ever done, so it’s nice.

Season Two of Life and Beth is now streaming on Hulu.

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