Ben Bodé [Interview]

Today’s interview is not only with a brilliant actor who has had an incredible career to date, but he is somebody who has helped me finally put a check mark on my internal wish list of stuff to talk about here at Trainwreck’d Society. I shall explain.

Ben Bodé has an amazing list of credits to his name. But, the one credit that really drew me to this amazing actor was his role in one of my favorite films of all time, the pivotal 90’s treasure of a film known as Empire Records. As a kid growing up in this time, this film ran supreme for me. And if we are being honest, Ben portrayed probably the least likable character in the film. I actually hated him, until his final gestures at the end of the film holding a large jar of cash (which we all secretly knew wasn’t going to cover the cost of buying the store, but we loved the concept). But here is the other thing….he did it flawlessly! Which is what led me to want to find out more about this amazing actor. And as it turns out, he happens to be one of the nicest fucking dudes on the planet!

Ben was kind enough to not only tell us some amazing stories about Empire Records, but he was so many more amazing stories to tell! He may very well be one of the nicest people we have had on this site, and that is saying a lot, as we have had a couple ofTV moms on here! In all seriousness though, we are so happy to have Ben featured on the site today, and also so excited to share his amazing words with you fine folks! So enjoy!

Through a bit of research, I learned that you were raised as a military brat, just as I was. I find a lot of artistic people tend to come from military dependent stock. In your personal opinion, do you believe that your acting or your inspiration to be an actor may have come from your life as a military child?

Hey, a fellow brat! I come from an Army family. My father served in Vietnam where he received two bronze stars and retired as a Colonel from the military after 21 years of service. and his father served in both WW II and Korea and retired, also as a Colonel, after 24 years. So how does that humbling legacy of service lead me to go into pretending for a living? God knows, really. We moved every three years or so, which meant new schools, new neighborhoods, new cultures. I needed to be able to adapt to situations quickly, keep an open mind, and cultivate a personality that would engender me to new people and hopefully deter them from wanting to beat me up. All attributes that can be be beneficial to an actor, in particular the not being beat up bit.

I also, by nature of continually being a new kid, spent a fair amount of time alone. This being the dark ages before omnipresent and effortless media, a kid had to make do with whatever he could. I watched, read and listened to whatever I could. Being stationed in Nuremberg in the late seventies is the perfect example. All we had was AFRT, Armed Forces Radio & TV, which was one radio station and one tv station and it had to cater to a very diverse audience. I was exposed to an eclectic mix of old TV shows and films and a wide array of old radio shows. From Wild, Wild West to The Muppet Show, from Jimmy Stewart to Steve Martin, from Fibber McGee and Molly to Paul Harvey, I devoured it all. And when there wasn’t anything to watch or my mother told me to get out of the house, I would spend hours in the library at the base, combing the shelves . It all seeped in deep and fueled my imagination and my fascination and desire for a life in the arts.

What was the first on screen speaking gig you can remember having? Was it an exhilarating experience, and were you a bag of nerves at all?

It wasn’t exactly exhilarating so much. I played an EMT in a scene on All My Children. I was cast as an “over 5” which is a day player with more than 5 lines, which upped my pay, which was certainly nice. I don’t recall being nervous so much as disoriented. They shoot FAST on a soap so when I was called to the set I remember it being a flurry of lights, props, cameras and a gurney. Also, unbeknownst to me, the director on a soap is not on the floor but sequestered off with a bunch of monitors somewhere. So when I got direction it came booming out of speakers in the rafters like the voice of god. Scared the crap out of me. Most of all though, I got to say the line “We’ve got to get her to the hospital…STAT!” The fact that I was saying “stat” the first time I was on TV I took as a good sign.

After all of these years of interviewing actors, I can’t rightfully say we have had a full on Julliard graduate on the site. So I have to ask, how was your experience in such an acclaimed school? What would you say is the most important factor that you took away from you time there?

I moved to New York in ’86 at the age of 17 to attend Juilliard. At the time they didn’t accept a lot of kids that young. There were 7 of us in a class of 22. Most of my classmates were in their early or mid twenties and had already graduated college or had been working in some capacity for several years. I was as green as you could be. I had graduated from high school just 3 months before and was living on my own for the first time in my life. In New York City in the 80’s at a YMCA for god’s sake! To say it was overwhelming would be putting it lightly. The schedule at the Jail-yard was rigorous, generally being 12+ hour days with classes in acting, movement, diction, voice, body alignment, scene study, stage combat, to name just a few. It was a lot to take in at first, even for some of my classmates who had just finished four years of college, but for someone like me who had never experienced anything like this, it was exciting but also more than a bit daunting.

I was at an age where I was just trying to figure out who I was and I’m being told I walk wrong, I talk wrong, I BREATHE wrong. There was so much to take in that it felt a bit like drowning and so, in self preservation, I ended up pushing back, questioning some of the stuff being thrown at me. Some of my instructors put up with it, some of them put me in my place and one or two just didn’t care for it at all. I ended up being one of a handful of us that got “warned” half way through the second year, meaning we had the rest of the year to prove ourselves or we got the boot. I managed to not get cut and was allowed to finish the program though it may have been down to the wire. At our final critiques that year I had one of my teachers tell me that they were “taking a huge risk!” by asking me back. Apparently my rebellious attitude or shitty acting had the power to bring down the very pillars of Juilliard itself!

This has always been my immediate recollection of the school anytime anyone asked…until recently. A month or so ago, there was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Juilliard Drama School with a weekend long reunion culminating with a gala. I was conflicted about it but my wife Bellina, who is also a graduate, was insistent we go. I’m glad she did. The weekend was filled with events and get togethers that were fun, festive and touching. But for during the day on Saturday they arranged for us all to take a class again. I was unprepared for what a moving and revelatory experience it would be. Being back in those hallways, in those classrooms with amazing teachers (one of whom was mine 30 years ago!) and to take class with members of Group 1 all the way to fresh faced Group 50ers, brought back recollections beyond my jaded go to. I remembered what it was like to spend your day immersed in this craft, this art form before it was a career, before it was commerce when it was just a pure passion. In a place where you could experiment and experience and learn and hone your craft with gifted teachers and talented, supportive classmates.

Undoubtedly there were days with stress, anxiety and frustration but there were probably more with creativity, joy and camaraderie. I’m grateful to have been reminded of that. So now when asked about the school I’ll say it was an amazing time with remarkable people and I’m so lucky to have had the opportunity. And then I’ll probably mention how they almost kicked me out.

You’re role as the not so lovable Mitchell Beck in the cult classic film Empire Records was absolutely phenomenal. And I am so happy to finally be able to ask you: What was it like to be the one character playing the “suit” amongst all of the “cool” kids? What was your process in developing this role?

You’re very kind to say, Ron. Thank you. You know, I had no idea how fond people were of that movie until just a few years ago. I got a call, out of the blue, from Empire‘s director Alan Moyle inviting me to a special screening of the film the following night at Hollywood Forever, a cemetery right behind Paramount Studios. Alan said we were finally having our premiere. I was astounded to see when I arrived that, like, a thousand people had shown up to see this 20 year old movie that had never even gotten a theatrical release. In fact, it was the first time I’d ever seen it on a big screen. Granted that screen was the side of a mausoleum. But I digress…

The film was shot in Wilmington, North Carolina at what was, at the time, the Carolco Studios, I think. It wasn’t very hard to play the odd man out amongst the cast as I had what’s called a “drop and pick up” contract. Basically, the majority of the cast stayed in NC, working, living and bonding together whereas I would just breeze in for a few days every couple weeks or so. Not dissimilar to how Mitchell breezes in and out in the film. In fact, I’m pretty sure most of the cast didn’t know my real name. Not to say that they weren’t welcoming and generous and lovely when I showed up, because they most certainly were. I’m just pretty sure they never called me Ben, I was just Mitchell. So that combined with the wardrobe and the hair and the fact that Alan and the producers created an encouraging environment for experimentation and creativity made playing Mitchell pretty easy and fun.

The fact they allowed me to throw in a line about “Beck’s Bath and Bidet” I’ll be eternally grateful for.

And in your personal opinion, what would you say it is that has made Empire Records a cult classic that is even more beloved today than it was when it was initially released?
As I said in my last rambling response, I was fairly oblivious of the deep fondness people had for our movie that, again, never really got a proper release. The soundtrack did! I distinctly recall driving on Laurel Canyon listening to KROQ when the DJ, Jed The Fish I believe, came on and said “That’s the Gin Blossoms from the Empire Records soundtrack. What’s up with that movie?! Where is it??” And I was screaming back “Yes!! What is up with that movie?!! Where is it?!!”
 In a nutshell, the answer to what happened to the release, as best I understand, is simply the person who greenlit the film was no longer at the studio when the time came to release it. The new person who came in didn’t feel terribly inclined to. But it was, eventually, released on VHS and, in particular, on cable. This, I’ve been told, is where the beloved-ness began. Why? Don’t know honestly. It’s got good music, good cast and “one crazy day” is a sure fire story device. But the main thing I gleamed from fans at the cemetery was they discovered it in heavy rotation on cable while they were in middle school. And they watched it over and over and over again, either alone or with a bunch of friends. The film, by sheer happenstance, ended up finding it’s perfect audience. It’s a little bit of lovely kismet.
In 2003 you gave a brilliant portrayal of the legendary Ringo Starr in the film My Dinner with Jimi. What sort of preparation went into portraying a legend in the world of rock and roll? And how was the experience overall?
Wow, nice pull Ron and, again, thanks for the kind words. It was an absolute gas being cast as Ringo and being a long time Beatles fan, I’d done all my research years before. The hardest part was getting the voice. I had a killer John Lennon and a not bad Paul. I’ve recently gotten George but Ringo…he’s elusive. He sounds easy till you really try. He’s got a tricky cadence, which is apropos for a drummer now that I think of it. Never felt I quite nailed it. As for the experience, it was tremendous fun. The movie is written by the lead singer of The Turtles, Howard Kaylan, and the story culminates to an evening he spent in an English night club and his chance encounter and brief bonding with Jimi Hendrix. Before that happens, he and his band mates get pretty much belittled and put in their place by The Beatles in the same said club. It was just one scene in the film and it was shot in a day but my fellow faux Beatles and I had every intention of making the most of it. We got together the night before and pooled our research and went through the scene several times, finding places that we could stick in some Beatle banter and shtick. Howard and the director Bill Fishman were kind enough to be amenable to our shenanigans. How much of it, though, ended up in the film I don’t recall. I do remember that The Beatles were charmingly insufferable in the scene as were we four actors on the set, as I like to recall, for most of the day and we enjoyed it immensely. Being a Beatle for a day is a complete gas and I highly recommend it if the opportunity ever presents itself.
What does the future hold for you? Anything you’d like to tell our readers about?
Sweet Jesus Ron, what does the future hold for any of us these days? Something Orwellian from the look of things.
That said, aside from the constant hunting and occasional gathering of employment I have the great joy of being an enthusiastic audience member and supporter of my daughter Lola when she performs in the play “Proof” at her school in the new year and my beautiful and talented wife Bellina Logan in her remarkable show “ Confessions Of A Mulatto Love Child”. And it’s looking like I may be doing some theatre myself this summer for the LA Fringe Festival.
As for your readers, god bless you if you’ve made it this far. Above and beyond the call. I imagine you may be tempted to look me up on some sort of social media at this point to connect, comment or harangue, but as of this writing I am not a participant in such things.
What was the last thing that made you smile?
Pressing send. Sorry this has taken so ridiculously fucking long to complete. Thank you for your interest and patience Ron. All the best.

About rontrembathiii
write. write. write.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: